Monday, May 14, 2012

Mount Vernon

Last week we went to Mount Vernon, for the first time in probably a dozen or fifteen years. About the only detail that seemed familiar was a recipe for cake, which uses 40 eggs and four pounds of butter. While waiting for our turn in the mansion line, we walked down to the wharf, and through the gardens and threshing barn there.

One of the better episodes in Henry Adams's novel Democracy is the excursion to Mount Vernon. The novel is set around 1870, so about 10 years after the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association had bought the property from Washington's family. Restoration had not gone very far.
 They passed on, wandering across the lawn, and through the house. Their eyes, weary of the harsh colours and forms of the city, took pleasure in the worn wainscots and the stained walls. Some of the rooms were still occupied; fires were burning in the wide fire-places. All were tolerably furnished, and there was no uncomfortable sense of repair or newness. They mounted the stairs, and Mrs. Lee fairly laughed when she was shown the room in which General Washington slept, and where he died.
This is to say, I suppose, that the room was not large by standards of New York. As I recall the dimensions, it would not do for a master bedroom in a large American house now, but I would not consider it cramped. What is noticeable is the length of the bed: to my eyes it is nearer five and a half feet than six; yet George Washington stood well over six feet tall, and Martha Washington had the bed made for him.
 Carrington smiled too. "Our old Virginia houses were mostly like this," said he; "suites of great halls below, and these gaunt barracks above. The Virginia house was a sort of hotel. When there was a race or a wedding, or a dance, and the house was full, they thought nothing of packing half a dozen people in one room, and if the room was large, they stretched a sheet a cross to separate the men from the women. As for toilet, those were not the mornings of cold baths. With our ancestors a little washing went a long way."
"Do you still live so in Virginia?" asked Madeleine.
 "Oh no, it is quite gone. We live now like other country people, and try to pay our debts, which that generation never did. They lived from hand to mouth. They kept a stable-full of horses. The young men were always riding about the country, betting on horse-races, gambling, drinking, fighting, and making love. No one knew exactly what he was worth until the crash came about fifty years ago, and the whole thing ran out."
Yet Senator Ratcliffe (a stand-in for James Blaine) remarks
What I most wonder at in him is not his military or political genius at all, for I doubt whether he had much, but a curious Yankee shrewdness in money matters. He thought himself a very rich man, yet he never spent a dollar foolishly. He was almost the only Virginian I ever heard of, in public life, who did not die insolvent.
He was, by the standards of his time and region, a very rich man. He did manage his money well, and unlike Jefferson and Monroe, died prosperous. This enabled him to free his slaves, as Jefferson could not have done.


  1. I like the idea that stained walls and worn wainscots can give pleasure and will take it as a cue to do even less housework than ever

    1. Better, then, to had off the book to those you would persuade and spare the visit. The managers have been busy over the last 140 years, and the house restored to the archaeologists' best estimates of what it once looked like. Washington's bedroom, for example, is in a grass green, with white trim.