- Historic Sites
George Washington had his Martha; John Adams had his Abigail—and Henry Knox had his Lucy. Or did Lucy have him? She was high-strung, demanding, and stubborn, but she loved him unto death
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
In 1790 the national capital was shifted to Philadelphia, and once more the unwieldy Knox household of children, servants, and household goods had to be moved to another rented house. The John Adamses lent their house, Bush Hill, to the Knoxes until another was ready. In Philadelphia, the President held a Tuesday levee and Mrs. Washington a Friday drawing room. There were more balls, more theatres, and more elegant women than in New York. Lucy became an intimate of the beautiful social leader Anne Bingham, who helped her run up more bills for dazzling clothes and filled her head with dazzling descriptions of life in the great French châteaux. Henry Knox, observing that more money was required to keep his family afloat, joined in financial ventures with Anne’s husband, William Bingham, and later was forced to borrow from him. Harry’s speculations were usually overly optimistic and seldom successful.
It now looked as if Knox’s best hope for solvency lay in the development of his wife’s estates. He and Lucy decided that the time had come at last to build the house they had always wanted; and at Thomaston, Maine, a great mansion, which eventually cost $50,000, began to rise upon the river bank. People were shocked at the grandiose scale—did the Knoxes really need twenty-four fireplaces?—but Harry said he wanted a worthy house for Lucy after so many nomadic years. “Mrs. Knox wants a cabin,” he said; it was he who demanded a mansion. Knox left Philadelphia at a moment when Washington urgently needed him to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, and allowed the responsibility and glory to pass to Hamilton and Anthony Wayne. His thoughts were now exclusively for his family, and he wrote Lucy on his trip down East of “the genuine and unspeakable love of my heart, a love which increases with years and shall never die.”
The house on the St. Georges River was ready for the family in June, 1795. The General, Lucy, six children, and assorted servants arrived from Boston on a sloop commanded by Captain Andrew Malcolm of Warren. They sailed into the broad mouth of the river, rounded a bend, and there beheld the big white mansion against a background of spruce, maple, and beech. It was all Lucy had dreamed it would be, a combination of a French château as described by Anne Bingham and a fine Virginia mansion—foreign to the New England landscape. Lucy gave it the fittingly elegant French name of Montpelier. It stood three stories high, topped by a cupola, surrounded by broad piazzas, fronted by columns. A princely house, it was served from a crescent of nine outbuildings behind it—a cookhouse, a distillery, a buttery, an icehouse, stables, blacksmith and carpenter shops, and dwellings for servants, grooms, and gardeners.
Montpelier was flung open to the entire neighborhood for a Fourth of July celebration. There was music and trestle tables piled high with food (it was said an ox and twenty sheep were slaughtered). No one forgot the queenly presence of Lucy—for many it was their only glimpse of her during nearly thirty years of her residence in Maine. No one forgot the first sight of the General, soon a familiar figure in his black clothes, a cane swinging dangerously as he pointed out spots for ornamental gardens, orchards, and grazing pastures. This first party over, another was given for the entire Tarrateen tribe of Indians, who set up wigwams on the lawn. The Indians found it all so delightful that the sojourn stretched into weeks, until Lucy’s patience gave out. The General called upon the chiefs and said firmly, “Now that we have had a good visit, you had better go home.”
More to Lucy’s taste was the visit of the roving Due de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who later wrote in his Travels in North America , “Mrs. Knox is a lady of whom you conceive a still higher opinion the longer you are acquainted with her. Seeing her in Philadelphia, you think of her only as a fortunate player of whist. In her house in the country, you discover she possesses sprightliness, knowledge, a good heart, and an excellent understanding.” Then came a big, jolly party consisting of the Binghams, two Bingham children, Anne’s sister Miss Willing, the Vicomte de Noailles, Alexander Baring (later Lord Ashburton), and a Mr. Richards from England. They played cards and billiards, used the stable of saddle horses, and drove in the numerous carriages and smart brakes which, in bad weather, could be brought into quarters below the house to allow passengers to keep dry. And they picnicked along the wooded river banks.
Munificent entertainment at Montpelier became a local legend. Any passing notable was made welcome, or any itinerant preacher. Henry Knox’s generosity was acknowledged far and wide; he built a church (with a bell by Paul Revere), a school, and a courthouse. He set up new villages for workers, gave employment to the whole district, and amicably settled squatters’ claims.
However, the scattered residents of Thomaston, some 800 souls who worked the land, fished, and traded, found Lucy unwilling to mix with the country folk. She drove out in her carriage reportedly spattering mud on pedestrians without acknowledging their presence; she called on no one and is supposed to have preferred to stand in a slushy road rather than enter a farmhouse while repairs were made on her carriage.