The Washingtons in New York

Everybody thinks of George and Martha Washington living graciously at their Mount Vernon country home. But while he was President, they had to live in northern cities. Especially interesting is their time in Yankee New York.

george washington, donald trump, inauguration
Library of Congress

The first presidential mansion was the three-story home above on Cherry Street in New York City, which had a population at the time of 33,000.

University of Southern Florida

The next year, they moved to Broadway Street to a home where there were two drawing rooms for hosting weekly “levees.”

Martha Washington was ill at the time of the first inauguration in April of 1789, staying behind in Virginia. Apparently George dined alone that evening but attended the ball and enjoyed dancing the minuet. Soon his wife and grandchildren, Nellie and Washy, joined him. Congress bought new mahogany furniture for the house.

Business of state was conducted at the Fraunces Tavern, where George was assembling the first Cabinet: Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State; Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; and Henry Knox, Secretary of War. Our first President signed the Bill of Rights here. Ironically, the Fraunces was the site where, a dozen years before during the war, an attempt was made on the general’s life. One account is that a young girl found out about some poisoned peas on his plate and threw them out the window.

But in 1789 both George and the new government were up and running. He held public receptions on Tuesday afternoons while Martha had hers at 8 p.m. on Fridays. at which they liked to serve lemonade and ice cream.

Although George enjoyed taking walks in Battery Park, he also rode in a carriage pulled by six horses. He often went to the theatre.

Many of Martha’s peers had compliments for her. She was affable, gentle and benevolent. Unlike some that followed, she didn’t act as an intermediary between factions or gather and disseminate information, said Cokie Roberts, herself a daughter of two politicians. “I could never keep quiet as she does,” Abigail Adams revealed in a letter to a friend.

George and Martha Washingtons' Relationship · George Washington's Mount  Vernon
George, Martha and their grandchildren Washy and Nellie. mountvernon.org

In 1790 the family moved to Philadelphia, where they and their servants spent the remaining seven years of two terms in office.

“Our dwellings in New York and Philadelphia were not home, only a sojourn,” the relieved first lady said when she returned to Mount Vernon, and added that she was content to be “an old-fashioned Virginia housekeeper.”

Sadly, the retirement did not last long. George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, just before the dawn of a new century. The previous one had been hallmarked on this side of the Atlantic by his great efforts.

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I had fun researching this one! Facts come from Cokie Roberts’ book Ladies of Liberty (2008), John Kaminsky’s book Founders on the Founders (2008), smithsonianmag.com, nyhistory.org, ushistory.org, washingtonpost.com, mountvernon.org, frauncestavernmuseum.org, and phillymag.com.

What George Washington Said (and How He Said It)

Five years ago I wondered in this blog what George Washington might have sounded like. More recently I found a book called The Founders on the Founders (John P. Kaminski, editor; University Press 2008) with some fascinating letters by people who talked with him.

Charles Willson Peale, the painter, recalled a visit to Mount Vernon in December of 1773:

Several young gentlemen…and myself were engaged in pitching the bar, one of the athletic sports common in those days, when suddenly the colonel appeared among us. He requested to be shown the pegs that marked the bounds of our efforts; then, smiling and without putting off his coat, he held out his hand for the missile…the bar whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits. We were indeed amazed, as we stood around, all stripped to the buff, with shirt sleeves rolled up, and having thought ourselves very clever fellows, while the colonel, on retiring, pleasantly observed, “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.”

Chevalier de La Luzerne in a letter, March 29, 1783:

After a war of eight years, during which he has scarcely left his army, and has never take any repose, he has received the news of the peace with the greatest joy. It made him shed tears, and he said it was the happiest hour of his life.

James McHenry in a letter of December 23, 1783:

Today…the General at a public audience made a deposit of his commission, and in a pathetic (emotional) manner took leave of Congress. It was a solemn and affecting spectacle, such a one as history does not present. The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears. The General’s hand which held the address shook as he read it. But when he commended the interests of his dearest country to Almighty God, and those who had the superintendence of them to his holy keeping, his voice faltered and sunk… After the pause which was necessary for him to recover himself, he proceeded to say in the most penetrating manner, “Having now finished the work assigned me I retire from the great theater of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

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National Portrait Gallery (npg.si.edu)

Fisher Ames to George Richards Minot, May 1789:

I was present (at the inauguration of Washington) in the pew with the President, and I must assure you that…I still think of him with more veneration than for any other person. He addressed the two Houses in the Senate chamber; it was a very touching scene, and quite of the solemn kind. His aspect grave, almost to sadness, his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention…

Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, January 1790:

If he (Washington) was not really one of the best intentioned men in the world he might be a very dangerous one. He is polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise and good.

Julian Ursyn Niemcewiz, May 1798:

He held out his hand to me and shook mine. We went into the parlor: I sat down beside him; I was moved, speechless…He began by questioning me about General Kosciusko…”How long are you in this country?” — “Eight months” — “How do you like it?” –I am happy, Sir, to see in America those blessings which I was so ardently wishing for in my own country.” He bowed his head with a modest air and said to me, “I wished always to your country well and that with all my heart.” He uttered these last words with feeling.

And this letter, which Washington wrote to his wife, Martha, at the beginning of the War for Independence, reveals much. It is rare because she burned most of their correspondence before she died.

My Dearest, I am now set down to write to you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern…that it is necessary for me to proceed to Boston to take upon me the command of (the Army). You may believe me my dear Patcy, when I assure you in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it... As it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it is designed to answer some good purpose… I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preserved and been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you in the fall. My happiness will flow, from the uneasiness I know you will feel from being left alone—I therefore beg of you to summon your whole fortitude and resolution, and pass your time as agreeable as possible–nothing will give me so much sincere satisfaction as to hear this, and to hear it from your own pen.

He has been gone for 220 years. During his lifetime he was greatly revered, and the passing of time should not dim the virtues he showed his contemporaries: patience, honesty, courage, steadiness, sensitivity, politeness. As Benjamin Rush wrote, He seems to be one of those illustrious heroes whom Providence raises up once in three or four hundred years to save a nation from ruin.

George Washington’s Horse

Washington's Horses |

What do you know about the horse George Washington rode? In paintings we usually see a majestic white animal complementing the general’s stature, hair and blue and gold uniform. Washington was reported to be a superb equestrian, an athlete like Tom Brady or Wayne Gretsky would be to us. But the the actual steed? Its name? Its height? How long it lived?

Washington actually used two horses during the American Revolution: Nelson, shown above, and Blueskin, shown below. Nelson was George Washington’s preferred mount in battle because he was less skittish than part-Arabian Blueskin.

Learn how Carrier controls the temperature and humidity of George  Washington's Mount Vernon home | Carrier air conditioning, heating and  refrigeration

Then, as now, horses were at their best when cared for by farriers, blacksmiths and veterinarians. We can know one of those who took care of Nelson and Blueskin, because a descendant is in possession of original letters and documents.

Kenneth Clarke, who lives in Ohio, had often heard family stories about an ancestor’s connections to George Washington. During the American Revolution Clarke’s fifth great-grandfather, Simeon Prior, shod Washington’s horse and served as the general’s bodyguard. Clarke’s elderly relative left him papers over 200 years old describing some very early history of our country.

Clarke reveals much in his recent book, Wolves and Flax. The title comes from the fact that the Prior family, Simeon and Katharine and several children, had to raise flax instead of wool in the wilderness of Cuyahoga Falls for their livelihood. Too many wolves destroyed the sheep.

Historians, writers and history buffs are always ready to investigate a previously unknown primary source. If you are in this group, I suggest getting a copy of the book.

Nelson and Blueskin lived out their days at Mount Vernon, never having to work after the war. The chestnut-colored Nelson, who was 16 hands tall and died at 27, always came running when he heard Washington’s call. Just like us when we find that there is new information about the Father of our Country.

You can read more on Kenneth Clarke’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/wolvesandflax

A Story of Three Farmers

There were once three farmers named George, Tom, and John. Two were located in southern climates with long growing seasons and fertile soil; one was much further north, limited in the crops he could choose. In fact, later in life, he started planting trees instead of hay.

They lived in colonial times when over 90 percent of the population were farmers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams we know as our first three presidents, but each owned and operated farms before, during and after they held office.

The Brief Moment When Mount Vernon Graced Brooklyn | Brownstoner
Mount Vernon (brownstoner.com)

Mount Vernon is Washington’s famous estate on the Potomac River in Virginia. In his day it included five farms on 8,000 acres. When he was at home, he rode on horseback 20 miles across the fields and back to inspect their progress. When in New York or Philadelphia, he counted on weekly reports from his overseers.

After tobacco crops of his ancestors depleted the soil, Washington turned to grasses, wheat, and other grains, practicing crop rotation and using manure for fertilizer. He raised cattle, sheep, chickens and mules, which he said ate less and worked harder than horses. His love for horses prompted him to buy an Arabian stallion which he raced in Alexandria. Hogs and turkeys ran loose in the woods.

He had inherited some slaves at age 11; at the time of his death he owned 215 people of color who worked up to 14 hours per day in the fields. He also hired white farm hands.

Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson – Works – Delaware Art Museum
Monticello (emuseum.delart.org)

Not far away on a mountain, Thomas Jefferson worked his farms like a scientist, experimenting and recording the results of growing 70 species of vegetables and 176 kinds of fruit trees. Some seeds he’d gathered in Europe while ambassador to France.

His experiments caused the neighbors to label him “the worst farmer in Virginia.” He installed a 10 foot-high wooden fence around his Monticello gardens, “not to let even a young hare in.” His plantation also included 5,000 acres of clover and grain which he inspected daily, noting the difference to the soil made by contour plowing, crop rotation and organic fertilizer. His stock included cows, pigs, sheep, chickens — and fish, which were maintained in “live wells.”

Like Washington he inherited slaves from his family and his wife’s family, growing to 600 in number, who did the major work in the fields.

Peacefield (hisour.com)

God speed the plough and prosper the stone wall. — John Adams

John Adams differed in many ways from Washington and Jefferson. He owned at various times a fraction of their real estate, 40 to 100 acres called “Peacefield” in Massachusetts. As a young man, his father took him to the fields and had him work to exhaustion. “Well John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?” he asked.

His son replied, “I like it very well.” His father said, “Well, I don’t…so you will go back to school today.” He graduated from Harvard University when the student body only numbered 100, and became a lawyer and judge. He used profits from his practice to buy more land, and on the circuit made a point of gathering new information about working it. In a letter he gave a recipe for fertilizer which contained seaweed, marsh mud, potash, dung and kitchen waste.

When Adams was far from home in various government offices, he left the management of the farm to his wife, including purchasing and selling land (See a former post on Abigail – Nabby – Smith at https://amazingbirdcollection.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/nabby/). In one of the surviving 1100 letters they wrote to each other, he said, “I fear your crop of hay falls short. Contrive every means for the maintenance of the stock and increase food for the cattle.” Other animals they owned included horses, sheep and chickens.

The Adamses had no slaves, hiring workers when needed. In his last years, John reflected, “There is nothing to try men’s souls nor to excite men’s souls but Agriculture…God speed the plough and prosper the stone wall.”

George Washington emancipated his slaves at his wife’s death. He had said in 1786, “I never mean to possess another slave by purchase,” and also that he would have liked to see a plan adopted by Congress in which slavery would be abolished by slow, sure progress.

Thomas Jefferson gave seven of his slaves, all members of the Hemmings family, their freedom, but did not include Sally, who is said to have bore him several children. The rest of the enslaved people at Monticello were sold at auction to eight different bidders to pay back Jefferson’s debts. The man who wrote that all men were created equal in 1776 had once likened slavery to holding a wolf’s ear — one could neither hold him, nor safely let go.

This is a season of reflection. In late summer gardens and flowers wither, dropping their last unpicked fruit and blooms. While there are still warm rays from the sun, thoughts of tillers and planters turn to clearing out and getting the dirt ready for next spring.

Washington, Jefferson and Adams all knew the feeling. We must not lose or hide the example they showed replenishing the earth.

But to own another person to do the work was not, and will never be, right.

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Information for this post came from John Adams by David McCullough, smithsonianmag.com, mountvernon.org, whitehousehistory.org, masshist.org, arnoldin.arboretum.harvard.edu, bostonteapartyship.com, monticello.org, nps.gov/articles.

A Nation Divided

A man who would be an American president agonized over a situation which could tear the nation apart.

But it wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, and it didn’t concern slavery.  It wasn’t even a division between north and south.  It was George Washington, worried about the east and the west.  The issue was geography: the wilderness which separated original states from the land beyond the mountains to which its citizens were moving.  Would another country try to take this bountiful land from under our noses?

Washington was concerned that we could lose the area on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains to France or Canada, or both, if a better way across those mountains was not figured out.  According to author Peter L. Bernstein in Wedding of the Waters (2005), pioneers moving west didn’t really have an allegiance to the east; with abundant natural resources, western territories could soon wield power on their own.

Patomack Canal company logo

GW’s solution was simple: build a canal system which would hasten travel between the two areas.  He succeeded in engineering the Patowmack Canal to bypass rapids and waterfalls, and began it in 1785.  The waterway was meant to connect the Potomac River with the mountains, but it went bankrupt after he died.

Image result for Patowmack Canal George Washington

The Great Falls of Virginia.  C&O Canal Trust

Conditions for constructing a canal were somewhat in better in New York than Virginia (even though Thomas Jefferson thought even that would be next to impossible).  The United States bought approximately 1/5 of our current land area from France in 1803 via the Louisiana Purchase.  In 1825, due to Governor DeWitt Clinton’s persistence, creativity, and Irish immigrants’ hard labor, the Erie Canal succeeded in marrying the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.  It was possible to travel east to west and west to east in a fraction of the time it took on horseback, or rivers, whose depth and other natural obstacles prevented a smooth path between settlements.

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The Erie Canal.  cbsnews.com

Five miles an hour seems like a snail’s pace, but at that rate of speed provided by the Erie Canal and horses which pulled the packet and freight boats, travel time was significantly reduced.  Passengers and goods could go 363 miles in a comparatively short time.  Citizens settled in new cities and frontiers while farmers sold their surplus crops.  And the United States economy boomed.

Then…the railway system came on the scene.  It copied the same route, with trains giving a much faster option for getting from here to there.  Soon the Atlantic Ocean would be linked by tracks not only with the Great Lakes but with the Pacific Ocean; the Erie Canal, even though expanded, fell into disuse.

It was a vital chapter in our history, though.  It needs to be remembered for both its economic contribution, and the thought that it may have saved a “divided” country.

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The notion that the Erie Canal saved the early union is just one I’ve uncovered studying for my new book.  I’ll be sharing others along the way, and project that I may be ready to publish in another year.  Canals have a loooooooong history, for sure.

Williamsburged

When you turn down Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, you know you’re going to discover something new about the past: either the 1600s when the town was established, or the 1930s when John Rockefeller and Samuel Goodwin put their heads together to bring it back to life.

Most of the frame buildings burned at one time or another and were subsequently rebuilt according to original drawings.  But artifacts in the museums are the real thing, having been donated or resulting from architectural digs.

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We were there recently on an especially crisp fall afternoon.  We warmed our hands by the fireplace of the tailor’s shop, where we learned that most cloth was imported rather than made in homes or the village.

        

We toured a number of taverns where prominent citizens met to discuss the issues of their day.  Two are open for business and have delicious southern fare.  We tried the pottage pie and hot buttered rum cider at the King’s Arms.  My favorite shingle was Chownings.

   

Crossing the green to the Abby Rockefeller Museum of Folk Art was well worth the effort.  Portraits of Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison and orator Patrick Henry hang in the same hall.  Dozens of pieces of china, pewter, silver and furniture stand quietly in their glass cases for inspection.  Architectural plans plus salvaged ballisters, clapboards and weathervanes illustrate craftsmanship of 400 years past.

Though it takes more than a day to absorb all that Williamsburg has to offer, one was all we had on this trip.  It was instructive and enjoyable.  And, considering the the decorations and shopping, a good segway to the holiday season ahead.