Soldier’s Return

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Washington was under pressure to put up all callers—with their servants and horses—who arrived toward evening, since the nearest inn was in Alexandria nine miles away, a journey of several hours. The road was rough and travellers had to stop every few minutes to open and then close gates built across the road to control the local cows and pigs. Mount Vernon, so Washington wrote, could be “compared to a well-resorted tavern, as scarcely any strangers who are going from North to South, or from South to North, do not spend a day or two at it.” But, of course, a Virginia gentleman could charge nothing for room and board.

To intimates like Humphreys, whom he invited for long visits, Washington would write, “The only stipulations I shall contend for are, that in all things you shall do as you please—I will do the same; and that no ceremony may be used or any restraint be imposed on any one.” And again, “My manner of living is plain. I do not mean to be put out of it, a glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of them are welcome, those who expect more, will be disappointed, but no change will be affected by it.”

However, Washington’s guests never had cause to complain of being treated slackly, of any lack of opulence or elegance. Their host liked to talk of republican simplicity, and he did achieve it in the sense that Mount Vernon was very much less grand than the mansions of Europe: it could have been absorbed twenty times over in a great English country house. But for America it was sumptuous, and Washington did his best to improve it in the latest taste.

Having written a merchant for seventy yards of red and white livery lace, he added, I have seen rooms with gilded borders, made, I believe, of papier-mache, fastened on with brads, or cement, round the doors and window casings, surbase, etc., and which gives a plain blue or green paper a rich and handsome look. Is there any to be had in Philadelphia?

Off to an English gentleman went a request for information about stucco, which he understood was the present taste in England for finishing interiors. He wanted to know [whether the] rooms, with which it is encrusted, are painted generally, or are they left of the natural color, which is given by the cement, made according to Mr. Higgins’ mode of preparing it? And also whether the rooms thus finished are stuccoed below the surbase [chair rail] or from thence upwards only.

Washington had so designed Mount Vernon that he and his family had a wing of their own, which opened into the rest of the house only on the ground floor: here was his study, the bedroom he shared with Martha, dressing rooms, and rooms for the grandchildren. This arrangement provided as much privacy as he could hope to achieve, but it was no protection against unexpected interruption. More often than not, when he returned from his usual morning tour of his farms he would find that departures and arrivals had altered the crowd of guests he had said good night to on the previous evening. Often completely strange faces stared at him with a curiosity embarrassingly undisguised.

The man the newcomers studied, although he moved with a springy lightness, was for those days a very big man, between six feet and six feet three inches in height. His shoulders were narrow and sloping but his limbs—forearms and thighs, hands and feet—startlingly large. His head was massive. The forehead, under a plentiful thatch of graying hair, was broad and high, yet it seemed small when compared to the rest of his face. Set wide apart, his gray-blue eyes were deep in huge sockets and heavily lidded. The unusually wide bridge of his nose had on it a ridge of flesh. The nose protruded powerfully: it would have seemed longer and more strongly hooked had it not been for the width of the nostrils. His mouth varied in shape from year to year, depending on his current set of false teeth, but it was always full, with strong lips. High cheekbones gave the lower part of his head the appearance of greater width than it actually possessed, but it was far from narrow. The depth and jut of his chin, which would have dominated any other face, seemed no more than correctly proportioned.

Such a head could inspire fear, but every strength in Washington’s appearance, as in his character, incorporated within it its own restraint. He gave an impression of reserve tempered with affability. His eyes, unless quickened by recognition of an old friend, lurked in their deep sockets without animation. Some visitors considered him austere; others were amazed to conclude that the great man was shy. An Englishman noted, “He speaks with great diffidence, and sometimes hesitates for a word, but it is always to find one particularly well adapted to his meaning. His language is manly and expressive.”

Having ceremoniously greeted each visitor, Washington would sit with them for a few minutes and then go upstairs to change out of his farming costume. In half an hour or so he would reappear, wearing on one occasion, as a guest noted, his hair neatly powdered, a clean shirt, a new plain drab coat, and white stockings.

Dinner was served at two. It was always ample and often luxurious, but Washington did not stuff himself. He commonly ate a single dish and drank from half a pint to a pint of Madeira. If the company permitted of relaxation, he remained “an hour after dinner in familiar conversation and convivial hilarity,” wrote Humphreys.