- Historic Sites
BEGINNING A SPECIAL SERIES ON WASHINGTON AFTER THE REVOLUTION
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
Above and on both sides of the tiny old rooms stretched an extensive house which Washington, his own architect, had improvised in stages as his needs had grown. There were clumsy solutions: unsupported lieam-cnds, false windows where the façade argued with the interior, an extensive waste area between the floor of one room and the ceiling of another. But there was also harmony, dignity, and a lyrical sobriety that testified to the temperament of the creator.
“The mansion house itself, though much embellished but yet not perfectly satisfactory to the chaste taste of the present possessor, appears venerable and convenient.” So wrote David Humphreys, an old friend with literary pretensions, in iyS(i. “The superb banqueting room lias been finished since he returned from the army. A lofty portico, ninety-six feet in length … lias a pleasing effect when viewed from the water.”
The whole area was so flat that the “mount” on which the house stoud, although it rose only two h undied feet above the Potomac River, seemed an imposing height. From the two-story colonnaded porch (which was Washington’s invention and was to have many descendants in the South), one could walk a hundred paces on a flat lawn. Then the land dropped to the river “about 400 paces, adorned with a hanging wood and shady walks,” according to one visitor. From the mount, “the perspective view” was magnificent, the river being sonic two miles wide and taking a wide curve so that it seemed to embrace Washington’s extensive acres. Some foreigners, it is true, found the broad panorama of the Maryland shore deficient in “houses and villages,” but the mostly unbroken vegetation pleased the eye of a man who had spent so many still hours in the wilderness. Near both flanks of the house he had, indeed, created artificial wildernesses that mediated between the wild and the planned: woods full of botanical specimens and flowering trees.
On the land side of the mansion, a lawn of about five acres was shaped, by the twin driveways that defined its outer limits, to resemble a copiously rounded bell. From each periphery, “gravel walks planted with weeping willows and umbrageous shrubs” led to large, shield-shaped gardens contained within decorative brick walls. One garden was devoted to flowers. Although the other grew kitchen vegetables, it too was planned for promenading, being laid out in squares by walks lined with fruit trees and low box hedges.
An English visitor commented on the “astonishing … number of small houses the General has upon his estate.” These included a greenhouse, a schoolhousc, extensive stables, quarters for white servants and slaves, shops for brewers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and even “a well appointed store” that served the neighbors, family, and servants. According to Humphreys: The tout ensemble … when seen from the countryside, bears a resemblance to a rural village, especially as the lands in the site arc laid out somewhat according to the form of English gardens, in meadows and grass-grounds, ornamented with little copses, circular dumps, and single trees. A small park on the margin of the river, where the linglish fallow deer and the American wild deer are seen through the thickets alternately with the vessels as they arc sailing along, adds a romantic and picturesque appearance to the whole scenery. Such arc the philosophic shades to which the late Commander in Chief of the American armies has retired from the tumultuous scenes of a husy world.
Washington had comforted himself in the military camps with the thought that, after victory had somehow been achieved, lie would return to Mount Vernon and “contemplate” in “philosophic retirement” the excitements and anguishes he had experienced, the rigors lie had overcome. It was not only his own restlessness that undermined this vision: his retirement could not conceivably I)C like that of an ordinary man. The triumphant hero, who like the legendary Cincinnatus had returned to the plow, was the most conspicuous symbol of the most portentous political event oî the eighteenth century. His character and appearance and way of life fascinated not only his fellow Americans but the philosophers, soldiers, and curiosityseekers of the entire Western world.
Many visitors came by invitation, for Washington rarely wrote to a companion of the old, hectic days without asking him to Mount Vernon. Others brought letters of introduction, or were men of moment who by definition felt entitled to call on “his Excellency.” Some were supplicants for this or that. Some appeared utterly without auspices. Thus Washington noted, “A Gentleman calling himself the Count de Cheiza D’Arteignan, OfRcer of the French Guards, came here to dinner, hut bringing no letters of introduction, nor any authentic testimonials … 1 was at a loss how to receive or treat him.” Washington invited him to stay for dinner and the evening, and extended the invitation until the bogus officer (there is no record of him in the French army lists) had spent two nights at Mount Vernon. Then Washington sent him “with my horses today, at his own request, to Alexandria.”