George Washington’s Mount Vernon: A Landscape for the New Cincinnatus

When George Washington returned to Mount Vernon in the last days of 1783, he became the new Cincinnatus. Roman senators in the fifth-century B.C. made the farmer Cincinnatus a dictator during a national crisis, but after the war was over he voluntarily resigned his position and returned to his plow. Similarly, Washington laid down his arms and the reins of power and went back to life as a farmer and private citizen in a new and experimental republic. Washington later reprised his own actions by becoming President of the United States and then, once more, relinquishing power and returning to his farms and private station. Throughout all of this, in light of his world fame and recognized political and moral leadership of a nation, he carefully shaped all of his actions, from how he dressed, to how he greeted and entertained visitors, to how he spoke.

As for Mount Vernon, Washington had two main desires. On the one hand, he wanted others to perceive it as the country seat of a virtuous, moderate citizen of a republic. On the other hand, given his leading position in American society as well as his desire to present the new nation in a dignified light, he wished to project a sense of refinement. From 1783 until his death in 1799, Washington spent a great deal of time and resources on developing his grounds at Mount Vernon, creating there a landscape both practical and beautiful.1 Leading up to the mansion house and in sweeping views from it towards the river, Washington designed vistas, lawns, walled gardens, serpentine paths, groves, and a magnificent prospect of the Potomac from the grand portico. He had, of course, begun certain plans before the Revolutionary War, but it was in the 1780s and 1790s that he greatly expanded his ideas and was acting, not just as a successful planter, but as a hero living in a nation he helped to create. A look at the landscape of Mount Vernon indicates how Washington successfully carried out the delicate balancing act between modest farmer and refined leader of his country.

Mount Vernon consisted of five farms: Mansion House Farm (or Home Farm); Union Farm; Muddy Creek Farm; Dogue Run Farm; and River Farm. The last four of these comprised no fancy gardens or landscaped lawns. But even at the Mansion House Farm, Washington was careful to show decorative restraint and also keep it as a visibly productive place. For one thing, he eschewed those landscape features embraced in Europe and even by some Americans. He knew well that the gardens of the great country houses in England were sprinkled with temples, obelisks, Palladian bridges, urns, statues, thought-provoking inscriptions on plaques, hermitages (fake caves), and other such features. Washington easily had the means to adorn his estate with such items, as did the Chews in Germantown in Pennsylvania, the Byrds of Westover in Virginia, the Pacas in Annapolis in Maryland, and others in America who had fine statues, fancy metalwork gates, summerhouses, and decorative little bridges on their grounds. When the Mount Vernon estate manager, Anthony Whitting, wrote to President Washington and suggested that “Something like an Obelisk” might look good placed at the end of one of his vistas, Washington—as far as we know—never commented on this idea and did not follow up on the suggestion.2

All of the objects of material culture on Washington’s estate, including the buildings, tools, and so forth, served a practical purpose. Among these, Washington did place a sundial in the front courtyard, a weathervane with the dove of peace holding an olive branch atop the cupola, and before the west door he created a border by setting thirty-two wooden posts united by chains that were weighed down by bell-shaped pieces of metal (figure 1).3 Washington himself commissioned the weathervane and specified its black and green coloring, and he designed the placement of the posts. All of these items were useful, and underscored that Mount Vernon was a place of order and punctuality and was occupied by a man of peace. Overall, this avoidance of luxury in place of practicality was a far cry from the gardens of Europe that were strewn with fine objects and scenic, small-scale architecture. It is not surprising that Washington, echoing ideas expressed by other Americans of the time, stated in 1785 that “the Nations of Europe are ripe for Slavery—a thirst after riches—a promptitude to luxury, and sinking into venality,” and he wrote a few years later against “purchasing foreign superfluities & adopting fantastic fashions, which are at best ill suited to our stage of Society.” 4 At Mount Vernon, Washington wanted to create an American place that was the rural seat of a resident and his wife who eschewed European luxury and superfluity.

George Washington wrote a remarkable series of letters in the 1780s to European recipients proclaiming the humility of his surroundings and inviting them to come see what he characterized as his humble cottage. He wrote to Adrienne, the Marquise de Lafayette, saying that if she visited Mount Vernon she would see him surrounded by “implements of Husbandry,” and would hear the bleating of “Lambkins” and see how the Washingtons live in the “simplicity of rural life”.5 She could then return to the glittering court at Versailles having been refreshed by her visit to his modest abode. Similarly, Washington invited Irishman Edward Newenham to come to Mount Vernon and see how the residents are clad in “homespun” clothing and content themselves with “rural fare.”6 The gardening and agriculture at the Mansion House Farm were meant to reinforce this notion of unpretentious, rural practicality.

The mansion house at Mount Vernon: West façade and courtyard. Photo by author.
The mansion house at Mount Vernon: West façade and courtyard. Photo by author.

Washington was hardly exaggerating when he wrote about the workaday aspects of his estate. A modern visitor going back in time to Mount Vernon would be struck by the rough and busy aspects of the place, including the presence of farm animals and the activities of many laborers. In the later phases of his development of the estate, Washington did eliminate some of the primitive aspects, such as the large, open refuse pit not far from the south end of the mansion house (covered up in the 1770s).7 While he covered up the refuse pit, other facets of the working farm were present through much or all of the period from 1783 to 1799. At the “brow of the hill” on the east lawn, distracting from the magnificent view of the Potomac from the portico (figure 2), stood an old “necessary,” what we call an outhouse. George Washington himself called this an “eyesore,” but it stood until 1796, and was removed only in anticipation of his return to Mount Vernon as a retired head of state.8 Considering the attention he paid to the portico, the views, and the rolling lawn, it is incredible that this “eyesore” remained in place for so many years. Similarly, when Washington built a dung repository, he placed it in full sight of visitors who were approaching from the stable and up the south lane toward the mansion house. He could have easily hidden this dung repository from view, but did not attempt to do so. On the other side of the house stood, in addition to the brick Greenhouse and Slave Quarters, a number of huts for slaves that were wooden and clustered together, hardly the architectural highlight of the estate. Closer to the home, where an English designer might have placed a pleasure garden, Washington kept a humble plot of land that he called his “botanical garden,” which he used for experimenting with seeds and overseeing new growth. Even the Vineyard Enclosure, a hillside section of the garden down from the road leading to the stable, struck some early visitors as looking more like an everyday nursery than a beautiful orchard. In short, Washington’s home was clearly at the center of a practical, rural place, with all of the sights and smells that that might entail.

Reconstruction of the exterior of the Old Tomb. Photo by author.
Reconstruction of the exterior of the Old Tomb. Photo by author.

The restrained presentation of the estate included the family tomb. Washington chose in his lifetime not to create an alternative to the Old Tomb, currently reconstructed and on view at Mount Vernon [figure 3]. The Old Tomb was small, crowded, and undermined by a spring underneath. Washington stated in his will of 1799 that he wanted the executors to arrange the building of a new tomb, made of brick, to be constructed at the foot of the Vineyard Enclosure (finished, after delays, only in 1831). Washington could very easily have built a new tomb in his own lifetime. Instead, in asking for a new one to be built only after his death, he left the old one on display, and knew that he would initially be buried in it. Moreover, in his will, he specified that he be buried “without parade, or funeral Oration” of any kind. His actual funeral did include a parade and orations, but he himself wanted a very humble, silent, and private burial.9 Like other modest parts of the estate, the initial interment in the Old Tomb and (intended) simple funeral were calculated to be final acts of modesty, utterly unlike the grand and pompous presidential funerals to which we today have become accustomed.

Overall, even beyond the agricultural components of the Mansion House Farm, Washington wanted visitors to see plenty of green, including views of forest land at the end of vistas, verdant lawns, the tops of trees below the prospect of the Potomac, and the checkerboard of farms across the river. He wanted to construct “live fences” (real growth) all around rather than constructed fences of boards and posts. By the very end, Washington was contemplating the end of growing extensive crops even at the Mansion House Farm, but it still would have comprised fields, orchards, nurseries, seedling plots, and kitchen gardens, as well as one-quarter or more of woodlands. It was an active and practical place for the new Cincinnatus and his family.

View of the east lawn and Potomac River. Photo by author.
View of the east lawn and Potomac River. Photo by author.

We have so far stressed the agricultural, practical, and restrained part of the landscape at Mount Vernon. But it had a lofty side, as well, expressing Washington’s superior position as world figure, moral and political head of a nation state, and—a position never relinquished or forgotten—wealthy Virginia planter. The grand portico and east lawn offered a magnificent view of the Potomac River, and that area of the estate was in harmony with the latest ideas in England about natural landscape gardening, especially as espoused by Capability Brown. On the west side of the house, the bowling green and adjoining areas formed a pleasure garden (figure 4). The serpentine paths on either side of the bowling green were bordered with dozens of varieties of trees, shrubs, and other plantings, many of them flowering or “clever” trees, as Washington called them. Polish visitor Julian Niemcewicz called attention to the “thousand other bushes…. all covered with flowers of different colors, all planted in a manner to produce the most beautiful hues.” Bostonian Sally Foster Otis had a chance “to regale myself in these enchanting walks,” and liked the densely clustered pine trees that Washington planted in March 1785, noting that “the walks are irregular & serpentine cover’d by trees of various kinds but what most pleesed me was a labyrinth of ever greens where the sun cannot even now penetrate[;] this must be a little Paradise in summer.”10 The bowling green lawn once comprised six oval beds, two large and four small ones, which contained a beautiful variety of trees, bushes, and flowers (the location and appearance of the beds is unknown).

Of the two walled gardens, the upper one contained a number of fine elements. Aided by the Greenhouse, which could keep tropical flora alive in the winter, the area contained exotic trees, with lemon, lime, orange, coffee, and sago palm trees among them.12 Visitors were often taken there first, and often led there by a family member, or perhaps given a tour by the head gardener of the time. The architecture of the brick and stone Greenhouse was fine, and set immediately before it was a formal garden in the European sense, with shaped boxwoods, probably placed there for the comfort and interest of Continental European visitors who liked that kind of garden experience. Despite all of the exotic and formal elements, the upper garden also included large beds for growing humble vegetables, so even here the mixture of the fancy and the practical held true.

The mansion house and the Washington family lifestyle were also part of the balanced presentation of the estate, evincing both virtuous practicality and fine taste. The design of the house itself was expanded to its present form c. 1773-1774, before Washington’s periods of national leaderships. It was a very large home for anyone in America at the time it was built, but we have seen that after the Revolutionary War, Washington characterized it as a humble abode, thus downplaying its actual size and magnificence. He prided himself on his Virginia Hospitality and humble country fare (nothing like the fancy Franco-Virginian foods offered at Monticello). As for the collection, it was here that Washington could show some refinement of taste appropriate for his station and national importance. Most of his art collecting, and the great expansion of subject matter beyond portraiture, occurred after 1783. During that time, he purchased or commissioned many scenes of landscape art, some of them idealized scenes in the manner of Claude Lorraine, others being specific views of real American places. Overall, the artworks inside echoed the landscape views outside. Washington displayed fine silver, furniture, and ceramics throughout the home, and his Large Dining Room (New Room) in particular was a thoughtful picture gallery and showcase for furniture in the best neoclassical style of the time. Washington liked, however, to acquire decorative objects that were restrained in character and elegantly simple. Gouverneur Morris noted that Washington was setting an example for the nation, and Morris hoped that Washington’s objects on display in the presidential residence would be “substantially good and majestically plain.” Washington concurred, and had conveyed to Morris that “extravagance would not comport with my own inclination, nor with the example which ought to be set.” At Mount Vernon, Washington continued to follow his “inclination” and preferred to acquire objects that were “elegant” and “plain,” and “neat,” that is, useful and well-made but also attractive in appearance. Just as he created a surrounding landscape that was both useful and beautiful, Washington wanted an elegant but unextravagant collection of art in his home.13

Washington’s first love was landscape gardening and farming, and on a cold and wet December day in 1799 he was out marking trees along the river to be cut down or trimmed to preserve the view of the Potomac and beyond from the house and east lawn. Perhaps the chill from the cold weather abetted the disease that ended his life shortly thereafter. By that time, though, Washington had established an extraordinary landscape at Mount Vernon. Although some of the elaborate and fine parts of the gardening in the bowling green area and upper garden are no longer present, and the rough aspects of the place as a working farm and slave plantation are mostly absent, modern visitors can still get a sense of Washington’s achievement. He created a truly American place that was fitting for a national hero in a republic.*

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: View of the bowling green at Mount Vernon. Photo by author.]

 


* I delivered a version of this paper at the symposium George Washington: Man and Myth, sponsored by the George Washington Society, co-sponsored by the Museum of the American Revolution and the Delaware Historical Society, and supported by the Delaware Humanities Forum (7 June 2014 Old Court House Museum, New Castle, Delaware). I wish to thank Kim Burdick for organizing that event, and I am grateful to all of the speakers for their stimulating papers.

1. For the landscape at Mount Vernon, see Mac Griswold, George Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999); and Joseph Manca, George Washington’s Eye: Landscape, Architecture, and Design at Mount Vernon (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 83-175, 222-242.

2. Anthony Whitting to George Washington, 15-16 January 1792, in ed. W. W. Abbott, et al., The Papers of George Washington (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia/University of Virginia Press, 1983-ongoing), Presidential Series, 9:436-437.

3. Manca, George Washington’s Eye, 96, 210.

4. George Washington to James Duane, 10 April 1785, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 2:486; and George Washington to Annis Boudinot Stockton, 31 August 1788, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 6:497.

5. George Washington to Adrienne, the Marquise de Lafayette, 4 April 1784, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 1:258.

6. George Washington to Edward Newenham, 10 June 1784, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 1:439.

7. For the refuse pit, by no means unusual for plantation grounds, see Dennis Pogue, Esther White, and Eleanor Breen, “Digging for Trash and Finding Treasure at Mount Vernon,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. CLXVIII, no. 3 (2005): 88-95.

8. George Washington to William Pearce, 29 May 1796, in John Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 30 vols. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 35:72.

9. See The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 4:491 for his funeral instructions, and 4:479-492 for the entire will; for the will and discussion of Washington’s last wishes, see Eugene Prussing, The Estate of George Washington, Deceased (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1927).

10. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805, with some Further Account of Life in New Jersey, translated and edited, with an introduction and notes, by Metchie J. E. Budka (Elizabeth, N.J.: Grassmann, 1965), 98. Sally Foster Otis (Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis) to Mrs. Charles Apthorp, 13 January 1801, cited here from the typescript at the library at Mount Vernon.

11. For an overview of the contents and visitor reactions to the finer trees in the upper garden, see Manca, George Washington’s Eye, 108-109.

12. Gouverneur Morris to George Washington, 24 January 1790, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 5:48-49. George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 4:178.

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3 Comments

  • The picture of the mansion house is a little old… a couple of years ago the house was painted a more creamy color to reflect what was actually used at the time. See here.

  • Eric: Good point about the date of my photo. However, there are ongoing discussions at Mount Vernon and elsewhere about the exact original coloration of the mansion house c. 1774-1799. We do know from letters from the 1790s that Washington himself wanted to have the whitest stone or sand possible thrown against lead white paint, which is a pretty pure white. There is no pure white stone or sand that could have been found, and thus the surface must have been at least slightly off-white. Given the uncertainties, I am happy to use photos from before the recent rustication that show a rather white house, since white reflects George Washington’s design intentions and aspirations.
    – Joseph Manca

  • Saw your presentaion on CSPAN; can’t wait to pick up a copy of your book. It really is incredible how much personal detail and design Washington contributed to the estate without relying on others for the ideas. He got his vine and fig tree after all those years.

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