The True George Washington: Farmer and Proprietor

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Farmer and Proprietor

Mount Vernon

The earliest known Washington coat of arms had blazoned upon it "3 Cinque foiles," which was the herald's way of saying that the bearer was a landholder and cultivator, and when Washington had a book-plate made for himself he added to the conventional design of the arms spears of wheat and other plants, as an indication of his favorite labor. During his career he acted several parts, but in none did he find such pleasure as in farming, and late in life he said, "I think with you, that the life of a husbandman of all others is the most delectable. It is honorable, it is amusing, and, with judicious management, it is profitable. To see plants rise from the earth and flourish by the superior skill and bounty of the laborer fills a contemplative mind with ideas which are more easy to be conceived than expressed." "Agriculture has ever been the most favorite amusement of my life," he wrote after the Revolution, and he informed another correspondent that "the more I am acquainted with agricultural affairs, the better pleased I am with them; insomuch, that I can no where find so great satisfaction as in those innocent and useful pursuits: In indulging these feelings, I am led to reflect how much more delightful to an undebauched mind is the task of making improvements on the earth, than all the vain glory which can be acquired from ravaging it, by the most uninterrupted career of conquests." A visitor to Mount Vernon in 1785 states that his host's "greatest pride is, to be thought the first farmer in America. He is quite a Cincinnatus."

Undoubtedly a part of this liking flowed from his strong affection for Mount Vernon. Such was his feeling for the place that he never seems to have been entirely happy away from it, and over and over again, during his various and enforced absences, he "sighs" or "pants" for his "own vine and fig tree." In writing to an English correspondent, he shows his feeling for the place by saying, "No estate in United America, is more pleasantly situated than this. It lies in a high, dry and healthy country, three hundred miles by water from the sea, and, as you will see by the plan, on one of the finest rivers in the world."

The history of the Mount Vernon estate begins in 1674, when Lord Culpepper conveyed to Nicholas Spencer and Lieutenant-Colonel John Washington five thousand acres of land "scytuate Lying and being within the said terrytory in the County of Stafford in the ffreshes of the Pottomocke River and ... bounded betwixt two Creeks." Colonel John's half was bequeathed to his son Lawrence, and by Lawrence's will it was left to his daughter Mildred. She sold it to the father of George, who by his will left it to his son Lawrence, with a reversion to George should Lawrence die without issue. The original house was built about 1740, and the place was named Mount Vernon by Lawrence, in honor of Admiral Vernon, under whom he had served at Carthagena. After the death of Lawrence, the estate of twenty-five hundred acres came under Washington's management, and from 1754 it was his home, as it had been practically even in his brother's life.

Twice Washington materially enlarged the house at Mount Vernon, the first time in 1760 and the second in 1785, and a visitor reports, what his host must have told him, that "its a pity he did not build a new one at once, for it has cost him nearly as much to repair his old one." These alterations consisted in the addition of a banquet-hall at one end (by far the finest room in the house), and a library and dining-room at the other, with the addition of an entire story to the whole.

The grounds, too, were very much improved. A fine approach, or bowling green, was laid out, a "botanical garden," a "shrubbery," and greenhouses were added, and in every way possible the place was improved. A deer paddock was laid out and stocked, gifts of Chinese pheasants and geese, French partridges, and guinea-pigs were sent him, and were gratefully acknowledged, and from all the world over came curious, useful, or beautiful plants.

The original tract did not satisfy the ambition of the farmer, and from the time he came into the possession of Mount Vernon he was a persistent purchaser of lands adjoining the property. In 1760 he bargained with one Clifton for "a tract called Brents," of eighteen hundred and six acres, but after the agreement was closed the seller, "under pretence of his wife not consenting to acknowledge her right of dower wanted to disengage himself ... and by his shuffling behavior convinced me of his being the trifling body represented." Presently Washington heard that Clifton had sold his lands to another for twelve hundred pounds, which "fully unravelled his conduct ... and convinced me that he was nothing less than a thorough pac'd rascall." Meeting the "rascall" at a court, "much discourse," Washington states, "happened between him and I concerning his ungenerous treatment of me, the whole turning to little account, 'tis not worth reciting." After much more friction, the land was finally sold at public auction, and "I bought it for 1210 Sterling, [and] under many threats and disadvantages paid the money."

In 1778, when some other land was offered, Washington wrote to his agent, "I have premised these things to shew my inability, not my unwillingness to purchase the Lands in my own Neck at (almost) any price?& this I am very desirous of doing if it could be accomplished by any means in my power, in ye way of Barter for other Land?for Negroes ... or in short?for any thing else ... but for money I cannot, I want the means." Again, in 1782, he wrote, "Inform Mr. Dulany,... that I look upon 2000 to be a great price for his land; that my wishes to obtain it do not proceed from its intrinsic value, but from the motives I have candidly assigned in my other letter. That to indulge this fancy, (for in truth there is more fancy than judgment in it) I have submitted, or am willing to submit, to the disadvantage of borrowing as large a sum as I think this Land is worth, in order to come at it"

By thus purchasing whenever an opportunity occurred, the property was increased from the twenty-five hundred acres which had come into Washington's possession by inheritance to an estate exceeding eight thousand acres, of which over thirty-two hundred were actually under cultivation during the latter part of its owner's life.

To manage so vast a tract, the property was subdivided into several tracts, called "Mansion House Farm," "River Farm," "Union Farm," "Muddy Hole Farm," and "Dogue Run Farm," each having an overseer to manage it, and each being operated as a separate plantation, though a general overseer controlled the whole, and each farm derived common benefit from the property as a whole. "On Saturday in the afternoon, every week, reports are made by all his overseers, and registered in books kept for the purpose," and these accounts were so schemed as to show how every negro's and laborer's time had been employed during the whole week, what crops had been planted or gathered, what increase or loss of stock had occurred, and every other detail of farm-work. During Washington's absences from Mount Vernon his chief overseer sent him these reports, as well as wrote himself, and weekly the manager received in return long letters of instruction, sometimes to the length of sixteen pages, which showed most wonderful familiarity with every acre of the estate and the character of every laborer, and are little short of marvellous when account is taken of the pressure of public affairs that rested upon their writer as he framed them.

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