The great public buildings of a restless genius helped shape the face of his adopted country, and his journals, letters, and sketches brilliantly caught the spirit of the young nation
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
As always throughout his life, Latrobe’s remarks in his journals and letters reveal a man whose human sympathy nicely balanced his almost scientific devotion to facts. Having declared that the mansions of Virginia were shabby, he observes: “It is a necessary consequence of the remoteness of the country. … An unlucky boy breaks two or three squares of glass. The glazier lives fifty miles off. An old newspaper supplies their place in the mean time . Before the mean time is over the family gets used to the newspapers & think no more of the glazier.” And speaking (to an imaginary correspondent) of the Virginia ladies, he is moved to further social comment: I prefer their manners without exception to those of the Women of any country I was ever in. Were I to chuse a Wife by manners I would chuse a Virginian, and yet let me tell you there are things done Sc seen in Virginia which would shock the delicacy of a bold Englishwoman … What think you of the known promiscuous intercourse of your servants, the perpetual pregnancies of your young servant girls, fully exhibited to your children …
Oh but who minds the blacks … You are right, Madam! Poor wretched Blacks! You are indeed degraded: not even considered as better for virtue, or worse for vice! Outcasts of the moral, as of the political world!
Progressively furnished with cordial letters of introduction, the young architect jogged the back roads from plantation to plantation, sometimes making visits of unusual interest for the annals of American history. He happened to arrive at Bizarre, the estate of Richard Randolph, during the final episode of the strange and violent ménage à trois which had developed between that gentleman, his wife, Judith, and her beautiful sister, Nancy (see Francis Biddle’s “Scandal at Bizarre” in the August, 1961, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). Latrobe found Richard Randolph acutely sick with what appeared to be an attack of indigestion—since diagnosed by many researchers as poisoning at the hands of the jealous Judith. The embarrassed guest stayed one night and left in the morning, thus missing Richard Randolph’s death by a few hours.
It was shortly after this that he visited Mount Vernon. George Washington, less than a generation after his famous exploits as leader of the Revolution, had already attained an almost mythological stature among his countrymen, and of this Latrobe was well aware. He came prepared to exhibit the best deportment of an English gentleman, but to watch, listen, and make notes with the scrupulous attention of a star reporter. Bushrod Washington, the great man’s nephew, had written a letter of introduction for him, and on July 17, 1796, he trotted his horse up the country road to Mount Vernon: The house becomes visible between two groves of trees at about a mile’s distance. … Everything … is extremely good & neat, but by no means above what would be expected in a plain English country gentleman’s house of £500 or £600 a year. …
Having alighted at Mount Vernon, I sent in my letter of introduction, and walked into the portico next to the river. In about 10 minutes the President came to me. He was dressed in a plain blue coat, his hair dressed & powdered. There was a reserve but no hauteur in his manner.
An hour’s conversation ensued in which the President made precise comments about high life at Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), the various rivers of Virginia, the Dismal Swamp, and canal building. Since Washington had at first remarked that he was in process of finishing some letters to go by the next mail, Latrobe now rose to leave; but evidently he had by this time charmed his host: “He desired me, in a manner very like Dr. Johnson’s, to ‘keep my chair,’ and then continued to talk to me.” They covered architectural projects in England, Latrobe’s family connections in Pennsylvania, and coal mines. Latrobe mentioned the possibility of silver mining in Virginia. To this Washington replied that he “heartily wished for his country that it might contain no mines but such as the plow could reach, excepting only coal and iron .” Then he got up and left his guest, saying that they would meet again at dinner.
Accepting the implied invitation, Latrobe went out and prowled about the grounds, making sketches to serve as the basis for later water colors. When he went back to the house, he met Mrs. Washington and her granddaughter, both of whom he found attractive: [Mrs. Washington] retains strong remains of considerable beauty, seems to enjoy very good health, & to have as good humor. She has no affectation of superiority in the slightest degree, but acts completely in the character of the mistress of the house of a respectable and opulent country gentleman. Her granddaughter, Miss Eleanor Custis (the only one of four who is unmarried) has more perfection of form, of expression, of color, of softness, and of firmness of mind than I have ever seen before, or conceived consistent with mortality. She is everything that the chisel of Phidias aimed at but could not reach …
They were soon joined by young George Washington Lafayette, son of the famous French general, who was staying with the Washingtons during his father’s imprisonment in Austria. It was now midafternoon, and President Washington reappeared for dinner.