It’s a healthy (and grateful) reminder to today’s reader – the eighteenth century held leisure for only a rare few and only during exceptional moments. The life of most colonists (not to mention slaves and natives) was difficult and dangerous.
The average child had a 50-50 chance of reaching adulthood. All cooking was done in or around a blackened fireplace, which was the sole source of heat too. Of course, any lighting was limited to candles or moon beams. Travel was extremely slow via either waterways or horsepower (i.e. actual horses!). Indoor plumbing was but a dream as no level of wealth could avoid chamber pots, outhouses, or incoming & outgoing buckets of water. Nonexistent was anesthesia for surgeries or childbirth. George Washington himself fatally experienced the outmoded (aka medieval) medical treatments for just a sore throat. In short … life was tough.
The overwhelming majority of colonial inhabitants were rural farmers – very few were city dwellers. Washington’s “farm” depicted above, Mount Vernon (inherited after his father and older brother passed away), was not unlike the masses as described above – survival, not luxury, was a daily effort. The improvements and maintenance of the farming operation required ongoing work … quite arduous hard work. Albeit slaves and servants (both indentured and otherwise) were available to perform the vast majority of the monotonous physical sweat and toil.
But still, the oversight and management of such a working plantation as Mount Vernon required focused intellect, intense work ethic, God’s blessing of health & humor, at least an adequate formal education (George had the minimum), as well as … significant money and political connections. George & Martha Washington’s world (1732-1799) was strongly characterized and methodically organized by the all-important ties of blood, marriage, and political kinship.
Consider these now famous personalities as but a sampling of GW’s impressive social connectivity:
John Trumbull (1756-1843) was an American painter, diplomat and architect. He is noted for his four large history paintings in the Capitol Rotunda, which depict pivotal moments before, during and after the Revolutionary War. Born in Lebanon, Connecticut in 1756, his father, Jonathan Trumbull, was later Governor of Connecticut (1769–1784). During his brief service as an officer and General Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, he sketched significant people and places of the conflict. Resigning his commission as colonel in 1777, he continued to paint and then went to England and painted scenes of the American Revolution and life portraits of featured individuals.
Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was a 19-year-old French nobleman who defied the orders of King Louis XVI and joined the American Revolution in 1777. Congress assigned the wealthy aristocrat to Washington’s staff. The teenager impressed Washington with his passion for the American cause and courage after being wounded at the Battle of Brandywine. “Treat him as if he were my son,” Washington ordered doctors, and the childless general indeed treated Lafayette, 26 years his junior, as a surrogate son. Washington’s “trust in me is deeper than I dare say,” Lafayette wrote during the harsh winter at Valley Forge. After the war, Lafayette named his only son after Washington and during the French Revolution sent him a key to the Bastille as a symbol of freedom and friendship, which is on display at Mount Vernon’s central hall.
James Monroe (1758-1831) was Washington’s minister to France while it was at war with Great Britain. Monroe, who was critical of the 1794 Jay’s Treaty, was released from his post by Washington in 1796. He resumed his political career in 1799, when he became governor of Virginia, and held this office for three years until President Thomas Jefferson requested that Monroe return to France to help negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Of course the deal turned into the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million. In 1808, Monroe ran for president against Madison and lost. However, Monroe proved to be a strong asset to Madison as America battled Britain. He served as secretary of state until March 1817, when Monroe became the fifth president of the United States 1817-1825.
Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was valued for his intelligence and ability to wield a pen, and served Washington as an aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War even though he was just in his early twenties. “There are few men to be found of his age who has a more general knowledge than he possesses and none whose soul is more firmly engaged in the cause or who exceeds him in probity and sterling virtue,” Washington wrote of Hamilton. As with Lafayette, Hamilton had a filial relationship with Washington. Recruited by Washington to be the country’s first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton served as chief architect of the American financial system. Even after leaving the cabinet in 1795, he remained a chief advisor and collaborated with Washington on his famous Farewell Address.
Philip Schuyler’s (1733-1804) parents had migrated from Amsterdam in 1650. Philip Schuyler began his military service during the French and Indian War, and began his political tenure as a New York State Assemblyman 1768-1775. On June 19, 1775, he was commissioned by General George Washington as one of only four major generals in the Continental Army. After the evacuation of Fort Ticonderoga, General Horatio Gates sought Schuyler’s dismissal, and Schuyler resigned from military service in April of 1779. He reentered politics and served first as a delegate from New York to the Continental Congress and then in the New York State Senate. He served a term as a United States Senator from New York but lost his seat to Aaron Burr.
A great example of my goal with these short bios is to show how these important Rev.-war figures were intertwined – Alexander Hamilton married Schuyler’s daughter, Elizabeth 🙂 .
Henry Knox (1750-1806) was a bookworm (and bookseller) from Boston. He served as one of Washington’s most trusted officers and the Continental Army’s chief artillery officer. As a self-taught expert on battlefield tactics and weaponry, Washington entrusted him with the plan to transport British cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, over 300 miles of frozen rivers and snowy mountains on oxen-pulled sleds to Boston, where they forced the British evacuation of the city. Knox managed the logistics for Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and, years later, served the first president as Secretary of War.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) served as Washington’s secretary of state. In contrast to the federalist Hamilton, Jefferson opposed the central Bank of United States, favored a weaker national government, and sought closer ties with France than Great Britain. After resigning from the cabinet in 1793 over Washington’s support of Hamilton, Jefferson orchestrated Republican opposition and in private correspondence condemned Washington’s leadership, attacking him as a monarchist and senile devotee of Hamilton. Washington felt betrayed by the man who would be elected president in 1800 in what Martha Washington called the “greatest misfortune our nation has ever experienced.” [Oh the drama!]
Edmund Randolph (1753-1813) was born to a prominent Virginia family and served as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington in 1775. Randolph greatly admired Washington and presented himself to Washington with letters of introduction from various important Virginians. Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson wrote, “This young gentleman’s abilities, natural and acquired, his extensive connections, and, above all, his desire to serve his country in this arduous struggle, are circumstances that cannot fail to gain him your countenance and protection.” In 1786, Washington wrote to Randolph: “It gave me great pleasure to hear that the voice of the Country had been directed to you as chief magistrate of this Commonwealth.” In 1789 Washington appointed Randolph as the nation’s first Attorney General, and later he replaced Jefferson as Secretary of State.
John Jay (1745-1829) was an important Federalist figure during the early days of the American republic, and a close political ally of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Jay’s public service career included his positions as the nation’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and as Governor of New York. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which ended the conflict between Great Britain and the new United States of America. Washington sent Jay to London in May of 1794 to work out a solution that would avoid armed conflict and the resulting agreement is popularly known as Jay’s Treaty. John Jay helped pass a gradual emancipation law in 1799 that led to the eventual end of slavery in New York in 1827.
John Adams (1735-1826) was a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress, and actively pushed for Washington’s selection as Continental Army commander. “This appointment will have a great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies,” Adams wrote. The Harvard-educated lawyer served as the country’s first vice president, but Washington notably excluded him from his inner circle of advisors and cabinet meetings throughout his presidency. Adams had the unenviable task of succeeding the popular Washington as president and lost his re-election bid in 1800 to Jefferson.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was an enslaved woman from West Africa at just seven years of age. She received instruction in Greek, Latin and poetry from the daughter of her owners. By age twelve she began writing poetry and by eighteen had become well-known for the publication of an elegy she wrote commemorating the death of a prominent preacher. In the winter of 1775, Wheatley sent George Washington a letter containing a poem to the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army which concluded: “Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. / A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.” Washington responded kindly to Wheatley in a letter, and although there is no proof that the two met in person, General Washington invited Wheatley in March 1776 to call on him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
We are each influenced, in various degrees, by those individuals who work and play and live around us. George Washington’s (& Mount Vernon’s) circle included men and women from all walks of life and from all locations around the world. He and Martha constantly welcomed all travelers to rest at Mount Vernon; plantation records indicate one particular year received 667 visitors! He was loved and admired, or at least respected, by each of them. As Henry Lee, aka Light-horse Harry Lee, so succinctly spoke at Washington’s eulogy in December 1799:
“To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countryman.”
We’ll explore the Potomac River geography, American history, and family ancestry of Mount Vernon, as well as its fascinating architecture in future posts on this great American topic … stay tuned!
- George Washington’s Sacred Fire; Peter Lillback; 2006; providence forum press
- The Founding Fathers; Gordon Leidner; 2013; Cumberland House
- The Essential Wisdom of the Founding Fathers; carol Kelly Gangi; 2009; Fall River press
- Houses of the Presidents; Hugh Howard; 2012; Little, brown and company
- Houses of the Founding Fathers; Hugh Howard; 2007; Workman Publishing company
- Www.mountvernon.org (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
- https://www.aoc.gov (Architect of the Capitol)
- https://www.battlefields.org/ (American Battlefield Trust)
- https://www.nps.gov/ (National Park Service)
- https://www.loc.gov/ (Library of Congress)
Uploaded June 2020 – DTW’s Blog #0048
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2020 by D. Tracy Ward, Architect and Benchmark Design, PC. “By wisdom a house is built, And by understanding it is established; And by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” (Proverbs 24:3-4)