A Visit To Mount Vernon

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn August of 1797 General Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish officer who had enlisted in the Continental Army during the Revolution, arrived in Philadelphia for a visit to the young republic whose cause he had served so well. With him was a fellow countryman, a soldier and poet named Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. Both had recently been released from imprisonment in St. Petersburg, where they had been kept two years for their part in Poland’s unsuccessful revolt of 1794 against its Russian masters. Within a few months Kosciusko, who had been seriously wounded fighting the Russians, decided to settle permanently near Philadelphia, and his American friends began looking for a farm for him to purchase. But duty called again: in the spring of 1798 came word that a Polish army was being formed in France, then at war with Poland’s two old enemies, Russia and Prussia, and General Kosciusko wanted to be associated with it. He decided to take ship at once, but because of the danger that he would be intercepted at sea by the English, also at war with the French, his departure had to be kept secret.

While Kosciusko was preparing to sail from America—with false papers obtained for him by Vice President Thomas Jefferson—Niemcewicz set up the smoke screen. He spread a rumor that the General had left Philadelphia for a health resort in the South, and himself went to Baltimore and later to Washington as though following him. In the federal city his host was Thomas Law, whose wife, Elizabeth Parke Custis, was a granddaughter of Martha Washington. One evening the Laws took their guest to the Georgetown home of another of Mrs. Washington’s granddaughters, Mrs. Thomas Peter, and there he met General Washington. As the parly drew to a close, Washington walked to the door with Niemcewicz. “I shall be happy to see you at Mount Vernon,” he said. “I shall be there in a jew days. I hope you will come.”

Accordingly, on June 2, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Law, Niemcewicz set out for Mount Vernon. His diary of his twelve-day visit is a priceless portrait of life there in the period between the time Washington left the Presidency and his death a year and a half after this visit. The following selection is from a new English translation by Metchie J. E. Budka of Niemcewicz’s complete Travels Through America, soon to be published by the Grassmann Publishing Company as Number XIV of The Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society. —The Editors

2 June. Mount Vernon. After many distractions and delays, at about eleven o’clock we set out for Mount Vernon. We crossed the river by ferry and followed the Maryland bank. From there Federal City, or rather the land destined for the city, rises in an amphitheatre. After having made 4 to 5 miles we arrived at the point opposite Alexandria. … We took 25 minutes to cross once again the Potowmak. I stopped in Alexandria at the merchant’s Atkins to buy a pound of cut tobacco. It sells at a dollar a pound, which is excessive for a country which is the fatherland of all tobaccos. While paying I muttered against this costly habit, unclean and unhealthy, but it is not at such a time, bereft of all pleasures, that I could bring myself to renounce it.

We continued through a country scored with ravines and well wooded. After 7 miles of road we arrived at the foot of a hill where the properties of [General] Washington begin. We took a road newly cut through a forest of oaks. Soon we discovered still another hill, at the top of which stood a rather spacious house, surmounted by a small cupola, with mezzanines and with blinds painted in green. It is surrounded by a ditch in brick with very pretty little turrets at the corners; these are nothing but outhouses. Two bowling greens, a circular one very near the house, the other very large and irregular, form the courtyard in front of the house. All kinds of trees, bushes, flowering plants, ornament the two sides of the court. Near the two ends of the house are planted two groves of acacia, called here locust, a charming tree, with a smooth trunk and without branches, leaving a clear and open space for the movement of its small and trembling leaves. The ground where they are planted is a green carpet of the most beautiful velvet. This tree keeps off all kinds of insects. There were also a few catalpa and tulip trees there.

We entered into the house. Gl. Washington was at his farm. Madame appeared after a few minutes, welcomed us most graciously and had punch served. At two o’clock the Gl. arrived mounted on a gray horse. He shook our hand, dismounted, gave a cut of the whip to his horse, which went off by itself to the stable. We chatted a little; then he went off to dress and we to see the interior of the house.