George Washington in Retirement

By W. W. Abbot
The Lowell Lecture Series, The Museum of Our National Heritage
Lexington, Massachusetts, 5 December 1999


retireThe following lecture was presented by W. W. Abbot at The Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington Massachusetts, on 5 December 1999 as part of the Lowell Lecture Series, sponsored by The Massachusetts Historical Society and The Colonial Society. Mr. Abbot, Professor Emeritus of the Corcoran Department of History and Editor Emeritus of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, opened two exhibits honoring the bicentennial of Washington’s death at the University of Virginia with his lecture, “The Young George Washington and His Papers,” presented 11 February 1999.

For George Washington retirement had a precise meaning. It meant leaving the public stage and going home to attend to one’s business. By this definition, Washington retired three times. He first retired in 1759 when he gave up his military career and began the life of a planter at Mount Vernon. This lasted about sixteen years. In December 1783, after nine years away from home as commander in chief of the Continental army, he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon. This, his second retirement, lasted for a little over five years, ending in 1789 with his departure for New York to become President. After eight years in the presidency, Washington retired for the last time, in March 1797. Two years and nine months later, he died at Mount Vernon.

W. W. Abbot
Photo by Stephanie Gross

The business that Washington went home to attend to, in 1759, in 1783, and in 1797, was always the same: the management of the plantation at Mount Vernon, made up of five farms eventually totaling 8,000 acres, with a grist mill and distillery, a fishery, the manor house and its extensive ornamental and experimental gardens, scores of outbuildings, and several hundred slaves-and roads, hedges, ditches, fences, horses, jackasses, jennies, mules, cows, prize bulls and rams, sheep, pigs, goats, guinea hens, and fox hounds. It is fair to say, I believe, that whereas the Revolution and the presidency forced upon Washington a role in history-a role, I hasten to add, he embraced eagerly and played to the hilt-his career in agriculture, of his own choosing and design, had on him a stronger and more enduring hold than did either war or politics.

As a planter, Washington always faced the challenge of finding ways to produce at Mount Vernon, for sale and for consumption, enough to sustain the sort of life that he deemed suitable for himself and for his dependents. Virginia planters were finding such a goal more and more difficult to attain in the years before the Revolution and nearly impossible afterwards. Washington came closer to making his plantation profitable than did most.

It was an article of faith with him that, contrary to general practice in Virginia, a planter’s first concern was to preserve and improve the fertility of his land. To this end, Washington experimented with many cover crops, he rotated crops in varying sequences, he tried different types of plows and ways of plowing, and he used a wide assortment of fertilizers in various ways. Once he bought in Philadelphia a large machine, called a “Hippopotamus,” 1 with which he scraped muck from the bottom of the Potomac to spread on his fields.

Early on, Washington abandoned the culture of tobacco, which was exhausting the soil, and turned to grain for his primary money crop. Most of the grain he sold, or consigned, to local and foreign merchants in the form of wheat flour, corn meal, and, later, whiskey. It was a constant challenge to find sources for high quality seed with which to sow his fields in wheat, corn, barley, rye, clover, and grasses. Nor was he ever satisfied that he knew all he needed to know about how best to plant, cultivate, harvest, and market these crops. Much the same might be said of his raising vast amounts of foodstuff for human and animal consumption at Mount Vernon. There were the large fields of vegetables-carrots, corn, cabbages, potatoes, peas, beans, pumpkins, and turnips-to be attended to every year. There were the rows of fruit trees bearing different varieties of apples, cherries, pears, plums, peaches, and apricots. His fishery on the river provided not only food for his people but also an important commodity for sale. He paid particular attention to his farm animals and took pains to acquire breeding animals that would improve his stock. He was forever seeking information and advice about the art of farming from fellow agriculturalists in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and in Britain. His passion for agricultural experimentation led him to try, briefly, to grow flax and hemp as staple crops, and his enthusiasm for growing rare and exotic plants made him never tire of planting in his greenhouse and gardens the seed and cuttings sent to him from faraway places. Nor did he ever cease trying to devise new and better ways to use his labor force, the greatest challenge of all.

While engaged in a lifelong effort to make the plantation at Mount Vernon a model of efficiency and productivity, Washington found time, during his first and second retirements, to take the lead in the building of the Potomac River and James River canals and in the draining of the Great Dismal Swamp, the largest projects of that kind undertaken in Virginia during his lifetime. He also acquired and offered for sale tens of thousands of acres of western land along the banks of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers.

In all of this, Washington’s purpose, of course, was to advance his own interests. But like other enlightened planters of his generation, he believed that any success he might have would also benefit his fellow countrymen. The improvement of agricultural practices and the expansion of available land would offer all farmers new opportunities for advancement. What was good for George Washington was good for his country. Washington’s assumptions about the coincidence of his personal and the general interest was, I suspect, a real source of strength for him during those years when he sought to fill the demanding role of Father of His Country.

Washington’s first stint in the public realm, as commander in chief of Virginia’s forces during the French and Indian War, transformed him from a callow youth hungry for distinction into an accomplished army officer who commanded with easy confidence and considerable skill a brigade of the British general John Forbes’s army in its march on Fort Duquesne in the fall of 1758. To call Washington’s departure from his regiment at the end of this campaign, at age 26, his first retirement, as I do, is, of course, even by Washington’s definition, stretching the point. Unlike his retirement in 1783, and again in 1797, this was not a purposeful withdrawal from public life. It was a retirement only in the sense it represented a reluctant acceptance that a career in the British army was not open to him and that he must make his way in private life. For the next decade and a half Washington lived at Mount Vernon making himself, with the help of his wife’s fortune, a man of large property and wide influence. These were the years in which he developed his farming operations on a large scale and acquired vast stretches of land in the west. This was also the time in his life in which he as a great planter took a leading part in local affairs, serving without interruption on his parish vestry and the Fairfax County court, and in the Virginia legislature.

The alacrity with which Washington abandoned this life to assume command of the Continental army in 1775 gives some credence to the label of retirement for these early years at Mount Vernon. In any case, he was away from Mount Vernon at war for nearly nine years. In December 1783, the hero of the Revolution submitted his resignation to Congress and returned home, taking with him only boxes of papers recording the long fight for independence. This act of retirement was perhaps the single most important action of his career. Not that the renunciation of power by the conquering hero preserved the American states from military rule, then or thereafter. Washington, in fact, could not have become, or remained, ruler even if he had wished. But his prompt return to Mount Vernon, without pay, prize, or office, with no demands made and the solemn assurance that no reward or office would be accepted, struck a chord in the American and European consciousness. It made the Cincinnatus of the West a great man: great in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of his countrymen, and, in a very real sense, his own. The newly independent American republic stood in need of a symbol, a personified ideal, to give it unity and to help it define itself. The evidence is convincing that Washington came to understand and accept that this was to be his role in the infancy of the new union. During the early days of his retirement in the 1780s, he played the role of great man with zest and thereafter always sought to meet the demands the role placed upon him. This is one of the reasons why he suffered agonies of indecision in 1787, over whether or not he should attend the convention called in Philadelphia to draft a new frame of government. Should he attend and increase the chances of the convention’s success, or should he keep his distance lest the effort fail and he be needed as a symbol to help preserve for a while longer the fragile union of states? And again, in the next year, should he consent to become president in the new government in order to put it on a firm footing, or should he stand aside, above the fray, to preserve his fame, his reputation, and his presence as a unifying force in time of troubles yet to come? He decided to risk his fame by presiding at the Constitutional Convention, and in doing so added to its luster. He risked it again to serve as president, which by the time he left office had dimmed its glow but in the end confirmed his place as the central figure in the founding of a nation.

The story I’d like to tell this afternoon, briefly, I promise, and as simply as I can, is the story of Washington’s final retirement. I began working on Washington’s retirement papers, his post-presidential papers, in 1992. This was the year that I myself finally retired, at the age of 70, from the faculty at the University of Virginia and from the editorship of The Papers of George Washington. I had spent years preparing a ten-volume edition of Washington’s pre-Revolutionary papers, and I had just finished editing and publishing in six volumes his Confederation papers, the periods of his first and second retirements. My successor recklessly invited me to stick around for a bit to edit the papers of Washington’s final retirement. I stayed for nearly six years. The last two of the four volumes in the Retirement Series, which cover the period from 4 March 1797 to 14 December 1799, were published this fall.

During the twenty-odd years that I was editing Washington’s papers, I hardly ever lectured on the man, wrote anything about him for publication, or even passed judgment on what others said or wrote. I’m not sure why. A strange sort of conflict of interest thing perhaps. Last year, no longer an editor of his papers, I agreed to give a talk in California on the young Washington. Then, last summer, I was asked to speak here in this wonderful place eight days before the two hundredth anniversary of Washington’s death, about his last years. It seemed the right time and place to give my second, and last, talk on the great man. Maybe, I thought, if I think hard enough about the papers I’ve been immersed in for nearly a decade, I can come up with something worth saying about Washington in his brief final retirement. I hope I have done so. A word of warning: What follows is my own rather high-flying reading of the documents in which I give little supporting evidence, because I do not have time to provide it, and with no reference to what others have said because, largely to my discredit, I for the most part do not know what they have said.

One current view of George Washington after leaving the presidency is of a quintessential eighteenth-century man, confused and hurt as the world about him rapidly and radically changed in ways that he could not understand or accept. This characterization is accurate enough as far as it goes. But the documents, as I read them, suggest that Washington, and his life, moved and changed in his brief retirement, and that both were poised for further movement and change when death intervened.

In many ways, Washington left office and resumed private life much as others have done, before and since. There were the rounds of goodbyes and the handing over the office to his successor. Private papers and personal possessions had to be separated from public ones and packed for shipment. Washington disposed of, by sale or gift, things not needed at Mount Vernon-the horses used for the presidential carriage, for instance-and purchased other things that would be needed there. He arranged to have shipped to Virginia, aboard the sloop Salem, personal belongings filling 97 boxes, 14 trunks, 43 casks, 13 packages, and 3 hampers, along with 1 ton of iron, 24 plow plates, 3 bedsteads, 1 heater, a bird cage, 2 wooden pillars, 1 safe, a mangel, 8 demijons, 6 fire buckets, a bundle of fruit trees, Venetian blinds, carpets, a tin shower bath, and more. 2

Traveling with Mrs. Washington, her granddaughter Nelly Custis, and young George Washington Lafayette and his tutor, Washington made the trip from Philadelphia in six days, stopping for public appearances only at Baltimore, Washington, and Georgetown. He had been at home less than three weeks when he wrote to a friend in Philadelphia that he was “already surrounded by Joiners, Masons, Painters &ca &ca and such is my anxiety to get out of their hands, that I have scarcely a room to put a friend into, or to set in myself, without the Music of hammers or the odoriferous smell of Paint.” 3 He remained in “the hands” of the carpenters and painters through the summer and into the fall. All the while, he searched for funds to support his operations at Mount Vernon, making repeated efforts to collect money owed on land long sold and to sell distant tracts still unsold, with no great success.

From the start he followed the routine of rising early and seeing to it that the painters and carpenters began their work at the break of day. After breakfast, at about seven, “I mount my horse,” he reported, “and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner; at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces. . . . The usual time of sitting at Table-a walk-and Tea-brings me within the dawn of Candlelight.” 4 As the candles were lit, he withdrew, whenever he could manage, to his “writing Table,” where he remained until bedtime. Even in the long stretches during the war and his presidency when he could not make a daily inspection of the farms himself, Washington had kept close tabs on their operation. He wrote his farm manager each week a letter filled with queries and instructions about farm work. He required the farm manager to respond promptly and to send weekly reports, giving in full detail such things as what work had been done at each farm, how each slave had been employed, which of them had been sick, had died, or had given birth, and the precise status of all the farm animals. Several months before his return to Mount Vernon, Washington had hired a new farm manager, a Scot, named James Anderson. Washington held high hopes for him. Anderson did not fulfill these hopes-no man alive, I daresay, could have done so-but he earned Washington’s respect and remained at Mount Vernon until after Washington’s death.

Mount Vernon
From Lossing’s Mount Vernon

While it would appear that Washington settled into the rhythm of private life much like any other man, his situation was in fact unique. For one thing, being an icon he attracted an endless stream of visitors, many mere gawkers, whom good manners required he entertain at considerable expense and loss of time. But the thing that complicated Washington’s retirement more than anything else was that not only had he been the first President of the United States, he was now also its first ex-President. The ambiguities and uncertainties of the role of ex-President were to lead to his descent for a time from the pedestal on which he had long stood as hero of the Revolution and Father of His Country.

At the time that Washington handed over the reins of government to John Adams, both the outgoing and the incoming presidents, and their supporters, assumed the second President would simply continue the policies of the first. After all, the policies were patently in the common interest and designed for the common good. (The opposition assumed the same thing, but assigned quite different reasons for it.) This was why Adams retained in office all of the heads of departments-the secretaries of state, war, treasury, and the attorney general-who had formed Washington’s cabinet and carried out his policies. Bemoaning the unreliability of the news reports printed in the gazettes, Washington, on his return to Mount Vernon, wrote Secretary of War James McHenry asking him “to communicate to me occasionally such matters as are interesting, and not contrary to the rules of your official duty to disclose.” 5 The “matters” that most interested Washington were any developments in the relations of the United States with France. During his second administration, controversial policies regarding Britain and Revolutionary France had opened deep and lasting divisions in the American body politic, with opponents of the policies viewing them as dangerously pro-British and anti-French, monarchical and anti-republican in their tendencies. It was at Washington’s initiative, or with his easy compliance, that the men in his successor’s cabinet provided him with frequent confidential reports on developments in foreign relations. Nor was this the end of it. Washington in his replies commented freely and fully on what he had been told. Whatever his intentions the ex-President was using the back door to secure information from his successor’s cabinet and to give it advice and support, all without Adams’s knowledge.

That Washington as ex-President should have ready access to the men in the new cabinet, all of whom had served in his, was inevitable. But why did Washington choose to make use of the access? Why did he not just walk away and in doing so define the role of the president after leaving office in the way he had defined the President’s role while in office? The answer is, I think, that for all his talk of longing to sit undisturbed under his own vine and fig tree, Washington was not yet quite ready to watch the world pass him by without giving it a nudge or two. This brief falter, or detour, coming near the end of the road to greatness which Washington had mapped out for himself and traveled triumphantly down since 1775, should not be surprising. For one thing, Washington had been for nearly a quarter of a century at or near the center of the world’s stage, at the top of the heap. In giving all of this up, even a man of Washington’s remarkable lack of vanity and unmatched self-control, might well betray symptoms of a sort of uneasiness, uncertainty, or discontent. All of us know-and some of us number ourselves among them- doctors, lawyers, merchants, and bankers-and professors-who are not at their best when they find themselves at the age of 65, or 77, no longer players, as we say, outside the loop, on the shelf, living out in Sun City.

In Washington’s case, it was not only the usual reluctance to let go. The past had a hook in him. A year after leaving office, he received a copy of a book by James Monroe mounting a bitter attack on the foreign policy of the Washington administration. Washington read the book in March 1798 and wrote copious notes in the margins of its pages. The uncharacteristically angry, sarcastic, and acidly contemptuous tone of his comments rebutting Monroe’s charges reveal how great a personal and emotional stake Washington had in the conduct of American foreign policy. His comments also show how strongly persuaded he was that his opponents were not just wrongheaded but had in fact become dangerous and even treasonous.

A month after venting, in the privacy of his study, his spleen on Monroe, and the French regime that Monroe championed, Washington learned the full extent of French “perfidy.” In April 1798, President Adams forwarded and Congress published the dispatches from the three American envoys sent to Paris to negotiate with the Directory. The dispatches told of the outrageous treatment that the envoys had received at the hands of the French Minister Talleyrand. This was the notorious XYZ affair. As the country seethed, President Adams recommended measures for strengthening American defenses, and Congress promptly voted to raise a provisional army.

Amidst the ensuing public uproar, President Adams and Alexander Hamilton, among others, warned Washington that he should expect to be summoned to head the American armed forces and save the country from France. In response, Washington spoke of his reluctance to leave private life and of his doubts that the French would invade, even though they were manifestly capable “of any Species of Despotism & Injustice,” and even though they were supported by “their Agents, & Partisans among Us.” However, he wrote Adams, “In case of actual Invasion by a formidable force, I certainly should not Intrench myself under the cover of Age & retirement, if my services should be required by my Country, to assist in repelling it.” 6 Early in July 1798 the Senate unanimously approved Adams’s nomination of Washington as ” Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of all the Armies raised or to be raised for the service of the United States.” 7 Secretary of War McHenry arrived at Mount Vernon on 11 July, bearing Washington’s commission. Two days later Washington wrote President Adams and accepted the appointment, with the proviso that only in the case of imminent or actual invasion would he leave Mount Vernon and take the field.

It was at this point that the impropriety, or inappropriateness, of Washington’s correspondence with the Adams cabinet began to reveal itself. Before he accepted the command of the army, Washington made it generally known that he expected to have final say in the choice of the general staff officers. Adams initially signaled his compliance with Washington’s wish that Alexander Hamilton be Washington’s second in command, but in September back in Quincy with his ill wife Abigail, the President changed his mind. He would appoint not Hamilton but the New Englander Henry Knox instead. The members of the cabinet, all political allies of Hamilton, led by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and Secretary of War McHenry, immediately informed Washington of Adams’s decision. Infuriated, Washington joined the venomous Pickering and the others in their campaign to force the President to appoint Hamilton. A month later, Adams gave in. Hamilton became the senior major general.

In the midst of the maneuvering to get the job for Alexander Hamilton, Washington wrote the Secretary of War in September about a report being circulated that Americans sympathetic to France, if given commissions, “would endeavour to divide, & contaminate the Army, by artful & Seditious discourses; and perhaps at a critical moment, bring on confusion,” a premise he and Hamilton acted on a few months later when choosing officers for the New Army. Washington went on to express to McHenry his conviction that, one “could as soon scrub the blackamore white, as to change the principles of a profest Democrat.” 8 Such persons, he wrote, “will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country.”

So it had come to this: the judicious, nonpartisan, and moderate George Washington acting and talking like the most partisan of the virulently reactionary Federalists. It is true that before he learned of Adams’s decision to appoint Hamilton, Washington detached himself from the maneuvering of the cabinet and himself wrote to Adams about the appointment. And he never again spoke so intemperately about the Republicans. Nevertheless what we have here is a certain change in the man. Enraged and bewildered by what he sees as the betrayal of the country by his political enemies, and being fully aware that this also represented the utter rejection of himself as the unifying father of the country by many of his fellow citizens, he comes down off the pedestal that had served him and his country so well for so long and lashes out at those who had turned against him and his policies. Alas, is this how Washington’s long and noble journey ends, in bitterness, ill-temper, and alienation? Or does he, off his pedestal, regain his balance and come to see himself as a man who has had his day and is now ready to move on?

In November 1798 Washington met in Philadelphia with his two major generals, Alexander Hamilton and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, to formulate plans for raising the new army regiments authorized by Congress, and to choose officers for those regiments. After meeting daily for six weeks, they made their recommendations in a series of reports to the Secretary of War.

Secretary McHenry and President Adams were slow to act on the recommendations, to Washington’s irritation, but by spring appointments of most of the officers had been made and some recruiting of soldiers had begun. During these months Washington’s activities as commander in chief were confined largely to reading reports from General Hamilton and forwarding letters of application and recommendation for commissions to McHenry, along with an occasional letter of his own complaining of McHenry’s dilatory habits. The truth is that what seemed to arouse his interest as much as anything else and consumed a great deal of his time and thought was the cut and design of the uniform for the new rank of lieutenant general which had been bestowed on him. He carried on an extensive correspondence with the Philadelphia tailor who was making it, asking him, for instance, whether the cuff “shall simply turn up, or have a slash through it, with a flap the colour of the cloth (blue, with three buttons and holes) also embroidered; and whether the [pocket flap] shall have a cross pocket in the usual form, or slashed (that is inclining downward).” 9

As Washington’s enthusiasm for his new job, never great, seemed to wane in the spring of 1799, it suddenly became more burdensome. In May 1799, Adams ordered that additional officers be found and called into service should a provisional army of 10,000 men authorized by Congress be activated. It fell to Washington to fill the quota of officers for Virginia, though he protested that from long absence he was “as little acquainted with present characters-a few excepted-as almost any man” in the state. 10 In the fall, because of General Pinckney’s absence, Washington found himself, much to his displeasure, under the necessity of finding winter quarters for several of the regiments in the New Army. In short, his military duties in 1799 demanded a fair amount of his time but commanded relatively little of his interest.

Washington did something else in the spring of 1799 that was as out of character as his earlier conniving with Adams’s cabinet and the barring from the new army men with Republican leanings. But this had quite different implications. In April and May he took a lead in the campaign in Virginia to elect Federalists to the new Congress. He persuaded Patrick Henry to run for the Senate. He encouraged Henry Lee to seek a seat in the House of Representatives. He wrote letters to, and got letters from, Federalist leaders in Virginia, including John Marshall, Bushrod Washington, John Tayloe, and David Stuart, about the political races around the state. They, and others, reported to him the results of the elections to Congress and to the state legislature. This was a radical departure for Washington. He had not personally engaged in electoral politics since his first election to the House of Burgesses some forty years before. During the war, by steering clear of factional politics in the Continental Congress, he had managed to remain at the head of the Continental army and to hold it together until the end. While remaining above the fray after the war, he strengthened the movement for constitutional reform in the 1780s, held the federal convention on course in 1787, became a decisive factor in the ratification of the new Constitution, and, as President, gave the new government stability and direction. Not only had he always presented himself as standing above party, he had openly viewed parties with abhorrence as manifestations of destructive factionalism. His aggressively partisan participation in the Virginia elections in 1799 may not, and probably does not, signify his acceptance of the utility, much less the desirability, of political parties, but it certainly does reflect his recognition of their existence. The new politics was still not to his liking, but it was not beyond his understanding, nor beneath his reach.

A few weeks after the elections, in the heat of summer, Washington spent days, even weeks, writing a new will. Two years ago I spent an entire summer studying that will. Anyone who perceives the will as the last testament of an old man, discouraged and weary, taking formal leave of a life soon to be over, is off the mark. On its face, the will is the work of a man neither discouraged nor weary, of a man facing life, not leaving it. It is a blueprint for the future, a bid to shape things to come.

The product of many “leisure hours,” as he says, 11 the elegant text of the will fairly vibrates with the pleasure that this famously methodical and even-handed man took in setting down in such detail, with such precision and clarity, how the accumulation of an acquisitive lifetime should be distributed among his heirs, who numbered upwards of fifty, or one hundred and eighty, depending on how one counts. Among the heirs, besides his wife, who was to retain possession of most of the estate during her lifetime, were a school in Alexandria, a college in Virginia, a never-to-be national university in the Federal City, the many offshoots of his deceased siblings, Martha Washington’s four grandchildren and other relatives of hers, cousins of his, old friends-male and female-his brothers’ widows, old servants and the children of old servants, and, in some sense, about one hundred and twenty slaves. To all these people and institutions, many to some degree dependent upon Washington’s largesse, or once were, he made bequests ranging from personal items such as an ancient oak box, a gold-headed cane given to him by Benjamin Franklin, his own writing desk and chair, his shaving table, swords and pistols, and mourning rings, and such other assets as bank stock, stock in canal companies, debts due him, cash, tracts of land, farms with livestock and equipment, town lots, houses in Alexandria and Washington, and his treasured papers and books. He also provided for trustees, named by him, to sell many thousands of acres of vacant and tenanted land and to divide the proceeds among his relatives according to a strict formula.

The most interesting and significant provisions of the will, however, are those dealing with the disposition of the Mount Vernon plantation and its enslaved inhabitants. At the beginning of the will, Washington gives elaborately detailed instructions for freeing his slaves. All of them were to receive their freedom at Martha Washington’s death; the old and infirm among them, and the children without parents, were to be supported by his estate for as long as they should need it. At the end of his will, he provides for the breakup of the great plantation that he had put together over several decades. Its 2,000-acre Dogue Run farm, along with the mill and distillery, was to be inherited jointly by Eleanor Custis Lewis, Martha’s granddaughter and Washington’s ward, and her husband, Lawrence Lewis, a son of Washington’s sister Betty. Another Mount Vernon farm, River farm, a tract of about 2,000 acres to the east of Little Hunting Creek, was to go to the two little orphan sons of Washington’s beloved nephew George Augustine Washington and Martha Washington’s beloved niece Fannie Bassett. The rest of the plantation at Mount Vernon was to remain intact. The great house and its three farms totaling more than 4,000 acres was, when Mrs. Washington died, to become the property of Washington’s favorite brother’s elder son, Bushrod Washington, a Supreme Court justice.

The Mount Vernon “Great House”
From a turn-of-the-century postcard

Whether Washington rewrote his will in July 1799 because he was working out in his mind what direction he wished his life at Mount Vernon to take, or whether it was the writing of the will that stimulated such thoughts, surely it was one or the other. For years he had dreamed of simplifying his operations. Now, in the summer and fall of 1799, he set about doing it. He himself would take over the full day-by-day management of his farms. By doing so, he would reduce expenses, increase efficiency, and provide for himself “an agreeable & healthy amusement.” 12 But first he must reduce the size of the plantation and the scope of its operations. He would keep for himself the three farms at the manor house which he had willed to Bushrod Washington, and he would make other arrangements for the operation of the two farms and the mill and distillery that he had willed to others.

One of these farms, River farm, already had been leased to Washington’s long-time secretary, Tobias Lear, the stepfather and guardian of the two little Washington boys who were to inherit the farm. Lear would hold it in trust for them. In September, Washington approached his farm manager Anderson about renting his mill and distillery, taking them off Washington’s hands and at the same time solving the problem of what was to be done with Anderson when Washington should take over management of his farms. He also decided to offer immediately to Nelly and Lawrence Lewis the Dogue Run farm, which they were to inherit. Upon their return in October to Mount Vernon, where they were living as a newly-wed couple, the Lewises decided to rent for a modest fee all of the property that they were to inherit, which included the mill and distillery as well as Dogue Run farm.

The plantation was now the desired size. There was yet a more serious problem by far to be faced, one that had discouraged him in the past from leasing any of his Mount Vernon land. What was to be done with the slaves working that land? The size of the slave population at the place was the real stumbler. This, in fact, was the first matter that Washington confronted when he began restructuring his plantation in 1799. On 17 August, he wrote his estate agent in the Virginia upcountry, his nephew Robert Lewis:

It is demonstratively clear, that on this Estate (Mount Vernon) I have more working Negros by a full moiety, than can be employed to any advantage in the farming System; and I shall never turn Planter thereon.

To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out, is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion. What then is to be done? Something must, or I shall be ruined. . . .

Under these circumstances, and a thorough conviction that half the workers I keep on this Estate, would render me a greater nett profit than I now derive from the whole, has made me resolve, if it can be accomplished, to Settle Plantations on some of my other Lands.

In June, around the time he was preparing his will, Washington had taken a census of the slaves at Mount Vernon. 13 He counted 317 men, women, and children, 124 of whom belonged to him outright. In the will, he solved the slave problem at Mount Vernon for the future by providing that his own slaves would be freed at his widow’s death. At that time the heir at law, Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, would carry her dower slaves down to his plantations in Tidewater Virginia, eliminating the likelihood of unrest at Mount Vernon. As the provision of his will delaying the freeing of any of his own slaves until after his death would suggest, Washington did not consider it feasible to free some of his slaves during his lifetime, in order to reduce the burden of their maintenance and to increase the efficiency of his operations, while keeping others in bondage. However, from past experience he knew quite well that if he did as he suggests here and sent slaves out with overseers to create far distant farms, it was highly unlikely that he would derive much if any profit from their labors or, more to the point, perhaps ever see or hear anything of them again. It was the next best thing to actually setting free unwanted bondsmen. In any case, the decision was later reached to pursue the matter in the upcoming spring by sending James Anderson west to take a look at Washington’s lands on the Ohio, leaving Washington free to supervise the spring planting at Mount Vernon.

In the week before he died, Washington formulated a meticulous and remarkably detailed plan for the future of his Mount Vernon farms, setting out precisely what should be done over the next three years at every field of every farm, at every meadow, wood, pasture, stable, or pen. On 10 December he sent Anderson a copy of the plan, with a long and stern, and even eloquent, covering letter, the theme of which, “A System closely pursued . . . is attended with innumerable advantages,” he had expounded to one farm manager after another for decades now. At long last, the squire of Mount Vernon would take over himself and soon have his plantation running like a clock. He died the next day.

Thomas Jefferson

You will agree, will you not, that Washington, in the end, seems to have, as the saying is, made a good adjustment to retirement. Had he lived, he hardly would have embraced the Jefferson administration, but neither would he have refused to come to terms with it. Certainly he would have cheered Jefferson’s purchasing of Louisiana, but he also would have taken satisfaction in the decisions of the court of his old friend John Marshall which infuriated the Republicans. And he once again would have met with disappointments in carrying out his elaborate plans for his farms, and, as always before, would have made new ones.

As we are at the point of observing the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s death, I should like to pay tribute to him by quoting a sentence or two from by far the best brief appraisal of Washington the man and historical figure, written by his fellow revolutionary and ultimately political antagonist, Thomas Jefferson, fourteen years after Washington’s death:

He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. . . .

On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example. . . . I felt on his death, with my countrymen, “that verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.14


1. GW to Levi Hollingsworth, 20 September 1785, and to Arthur Donaldson, 16 October 1785, Confederation Series, 3:267-68, and 307. [back]
2. Bill of Lading, 17 March 1797, Retirement Series, 1:38. [back]
3. GW to James McHenry, 3 April 1797, Retirement Series, 1:71-72. [back]
4. GW to James McHenry, 29 May 1797, Retirement Series, 1:159-60. [back]
5. GW to McHenry, 3 April 1797. [back]
6. GW to John Adams, 4 July 1798, Retirement Series, 2:368-71. [back]
7. GW to John Adams, 13 July 1798, Retirement Series, 2:402-4. [back]
8. GW to McHenry, 30 September 1798, Retirement Series, 3:59. [back]
9. James McAlpin to GW, 27 January 1799, Retirement Series, 3:340-42. [back]
10. GW to John Marshall, Edward Carrington, and William Heth, 12 May 1799, Retirement Series, 4:67-68. [back]
11. GW’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799, Retirement Series, 4:477-527. [back]
12. GW to Lawrence Lewis, 28 September 1799, Retirement Series, 4:324-26. [back]
13. GW’s Slave List, June 1799, Retirement Series, 4:527-42. [back]
14. Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 2 January 1814, printed in Paul Leicester Ford, Writings of Jefferson, vol. 9 (New York, 1898), p. 448. [back]

© 1999 W. W. Abbot

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