Sometimes when men can’t do it, women can.
When George Washington died in 1799, he willed his great estate to Martha, his widow, for the remainder of her life, which was not that long. She died in early 1802. GW’s will also provided that after Martha’s death, the plantation, which included the house itself plus several hundred acres, go to his nephew Bushrod Washington, the son of GW’s brother John Augustine, then an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. (GW’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis had hoped to inherit the property, but was only nineteen at the time; Bushrod was in a far better position to care for it.) Unfortunately, the inheritance did not include cash needed for its upkeep, and Bushrod was hard pressed to maintain it. It began to deteriorate.
By the 1850s, the property had descended to Bushrod’s grandson John Augustine Washington, who was even less in a position to keep the great estate “great.” It was beginning to crumble.
Realizing that it was not only a valuable property, but the home of the country’s most illustrious citizen, and an historically important property. He needed to sell it, and hoped to interest either the federal government, or the State of Virginia. While both those entities were sympathetic, the consensus was that there was no precedent for government “purchase” of such property. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
The Happy Coincidence
Sometime in the late 1850s, a South Carolina plantation wife was riding the ferry down the Potomac River. When they passed Mount Vernon, signaling its customary horn of salute, she noticed the vast deterioration, and wrote to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham, saying, “If the men of American have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the some of women of America band together to save it?”
The letter and its sentiment was a clarion call to Ann Cunningham, who wrote a letter to the Charleston Mercury appealing for American women to donate funds to rescue Mount Vernon. Thus was born the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the oldest women’s association in the country. It was also the first private preservation organization.
Their immediate goal was to purchase the property from John Augustine Washington ($200,000 – a vast sum); the second goal, assuming the first could be accomplished, was to restore it to its former glory, and as a tribute to its incomparable owner.
The response was immediate, and Miss Cunningham spread the word not just to the women of the South, but throughout the country. The Association would be a national one – even on the eve of Civil War. Their monthly newsletter (at a subscription rate of $1 per year) had a vast circulation, and the proceeds after expenses went to the Association. The project was a popular one.
The contract with a co-operative John Augustine Washington was signed in 1858, including the Mansion, outbuildings and 200 acres. A down payment of $18,000 was given, the balance to be paid in four installments, over the next four years. It only took 18 months. The great-great nephew of George Washington moved out on February 22, 1860.
It was a huge undertaking.
Helping the Ladies
Raising the funds not only for the original purchase, but as an endowment to restore and maintain the property was daunting. Men needed to be included as sponsors and donors, and preferably men of influence and prestige who could help spread the word.
Among the first supporters of the less-fair sex were Edward Everett, the well known orator and statesman. He made fund raising speeches in its behalf, turning the proceeds over to the Association. William L. Yancey, one of the “firebrands” of the South, performed similar contributions. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the country’s most prominent ministers contributed articles for its newsletter.
Even disrupted by the Civil War, the property was held in veneration, and in accordance with the association’s mission:
Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge – see to it that you keep it the home of Washington. Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress. Those who go to the home in which he lived and died wish to see in what he lived and died. Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change. Upon you rests this duty.
From the outset of the War, General Winfield Scott declared the estate as non-partisan. Soldiers who visited Mount Vernon were neither dressed in military uniform nor armed. No one seemed to object.
Miss Cunningham’s secretary Sarah C. Tracy, and Upton H Herbert, Mt. Vernon’s resident superintendent, along with a handful of free African Americans, managed the estate during the Civil War.
Later Even Unto Today
When the Association was started, Miss Cunningham organized the effort to include Vice Regents (or trustees) – one for each state, and the precept holds today. Most of these women were and are socially and financially prominent, happy to donate their efforts and funds for a worthwhile cause. After the Civil War, Vice Regents took responsibility for the preservation and restoration of individual rooms, and researching and obtaining whatever furnishings were original to Mount Vernon.
Prominent citizens continued to contribute their goods, services and talents to the estate. Thomas Edison provided for its electrification. Henry Ford donated a fire engine for the surrounding area. Presidents have used Mount Vernon for important meetings with distinguished guests.
Beginning in the late-19th century, attention was focused on the grounds, which today are fully functioning a la George Washington’s original plans. In the early part of the 21st century, a huge Library and Museum devoted to the study of George Washington was endowed and subscribed. All from private funds.
Simply put, George Washington is Mount Vernon, and Mount Vernon is George Washington.
Bourne, Miriam Anne – First Family: George Washington and His Intimate Relations – W.W. Norton Company, 1982
King, Grace – Mt Vernon on the Potomac – MacMillan/Ladies’ Association – 1929