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While Washington focused on his farming for the next few years, eventually expanding his 2,000 acre farm to 8,000 acres, he also became involved in politics. He was elected into the Virginia House of Burgesses, and in 1774, he was one of Virginia’s representatives in the Continental Congress. When the Revolutionary War began, Washington became the Continental army’s commander in chief. He was elected as the first president of the United States in 1789. Washington laid the foundations for the role of a president during his first term; he served a second term, during which his focus was foreign affairs. He refused a third term, and retired to Mount Vernon in 1797; he died two years later.
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George Washington: His Final Days
Festive crowds had greeted George Washington on many occasions when he traveled in and out of the capital city. Yet on this crisp, clear March morning, he and his wife Martha rode almost unnoticed as their carriage rattled across the brick and cobblestone streets of Philadelphia. John Adams was president now, and the Washingtons were leaving for Mount Vernon, their home in Virginia.
George Washington was delighted to be leaving public office. He was 65 years old and anxious to spend the remainder of his life away from the stress and responsibilities of the presidency. He believed he was near the end of his life; few people at that time lived past their mid-sixties, and many men in Washington’s family had died at a relatively young age–four of his brothers and his father had died while in their thirties or forties.
Following Adams’ inauguration on March 4, 1797, Washington had remained in the President’s Mansion for another five days, while his successor stayed at a local boarding house. He helped Martha pack 97 boxes and 14 trunks, and twice called on Adams. The Washingtons said goodbye to old acquaintances and enjoyed a last-minute shopping spree just before departing the city. Martha bought shoes and furniture, and George purchased wine, nuts, medicine, a smoking jacket, and a new pair of glasses.
When the couple arrived at Mount Vernon, Washington quickly settled into the routine he had always practiced while living there. Rising before the sun, he read or tended to his correspondence until about 7:30 a.m., when he emerged from his library for a light breakfast. He then rode about the plantation, talked to his farm manager and overseers, and inspected operations. He returned to the mansion in the afternoon for the day’s second, and largest, meal, one that frequently lasted up to two hours. Before nightfall, Washington often toured the gardens and visited the stables and carriage house near the mansion or returned to his library. In the evening he rejoined the family for a light meal, often cheese, bread, fruit, and a glass of wine, and usually retired before 10:00 p.m.
Colleagues often spoke of Washington’s ‘retirement,’ a term that he also used on occasion. In reality, Washington had not retired; he had merely left public life. Now he managed his personal business interests, which included Mount Vernon’s labor force of more than 300 slaves. He enjoyed this lifestyle and sometimes spoke of these pursuits as his ‘occupation and amusement.’
Washington thought of himself as a planter, although in eighteenth-century Virginia that term described those who earned their livelihood from growing tobacco. According to that definition, Washington was not a planter. He had nearly phased out tobacco production at Mount Vernon 30 years earlier, substituting grains, flax, and hemp.
Furthermore, much of Washington’s attention was directed toward non-agricultural concerns, and the majority of Mount Vernon’s workers never went near a hoe or plow. Some were trained as skilled artisans and labored on the estate as blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons. Others were assigned to one of the property’s five stills that produced nearly 12,000 gallons of corn whiskey annually. Some worked in the sawmill, gristmill, and on one of Washington’s two fishing vessels that sailed the Potomac River. Numerous women labored as domestics or made clothing.
Through a series of complicated land deals that included both sales and exchanges of western property, Washington realized nearly $50,000 during the last five years of his life (the equivalent of approximately $750,000 in today’s currency). In July 1799, he assessed the thousands of acres that he owned at $488,000. Nevertheless, as shrewd and successful a businessman as he was, Washington was aware of the vicissitudes and uncertainties of business. He worried about his and Martha’s economic security, so he decided to lease most of Mount Vernon’s land, which would leave him with a steady income. He had originally launched the search for tenants in 1793, but every promising lead had come to nothing.
Washington had resolved to lease the property only if he found ‘peaceable, industrious, and skilled’ tenants who would employ free African-American laborers, for he wanted to free his slaves and permit them to live and work as hired hands at Mount Vernon. Prior to the War of Independence, Washington never contemplated such an action, but by 1783 he had become uncomfortable in his role as a slave owner.
Although Washington was happy in retirement, he had not been at Mount Vernon long before he complained that he lacked time to meet his responsibilities. Dealing with his correspondence was especially time-consuming. He was inundated with unsolicited letters, the majority of which he tried to answer, averaging about one letter every day. Many were lengthy missives, containing carefully crafted sentences to ensure the style was correct and that he had expressed himself with clarity. Business trips also occupied his time. He undertook journeys to inspect nearby land that he had recently bought. Business frequently took him to Alexandria, sometimes for meetings of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Alexandria. Less often, Washington traveled to Georgetown for meetings of the Board of Directors of the Potomac Company (formed in 1784 to develop a canal that would link the trans-Appalachian frontier to the Chesapeake Bay). He made several trips to the Federal City–many were already calling it Washington–to look into investment opportunities.
Washington’s time was also taken up by the incessant parade of visitors who came to Mount Vernon. Hundreds of wayfarers stayed overnight during the 30 months of Washington’s retirement. So many came that once Washington noted in his diary, ‘I am alone at present . . . . Unless someone pops in, unexpectedly–Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us–that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.’
Mount Vernon took on the air of a hotel. The stream of visitors included foreign dignitaries and old acquaintances from the war years, or their children or siblings. Even one of Washington’s former Continental army bodyguards dropped in. Business associates, Virginia politicians, and relatives called on him. Some guests were total strangers and, on occasion, Washington did not even know the name of the person he was hosting. Many affluent Americans sent their sons to Mount Vernon for the same reason that subsequent generations sent their children to Europe. A visit to Mount Vernon was regarded as the capstone of a young man’s education, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the presence of the greatest American luminary and to see the most famous residence in the land. The demands on his time were so great that during his first year at home, Washington persuaded Lawrence Lewis, the son of his sister Betty, to move to Mount Vernon in order to ‘ease me of the trouble of entertaining company.’ As surrogate host, Lawrence led guided tours, dined with visitors, and chatted with the company in the evening.
Finding beds for the visitors was challenging, as the mansion bulged at the seams with permanent residents. Domestic servants, a housekeeper, and a clerk had quarters in the house. Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis, teenage grandchildren from Martha’s first marriage, also lived at Mount Vernon. Nelly, who was regarded as a beautiful and lustrous young woman, was the apple of her grandfather’s eye. To Washington’s delight, she chose to be married at Mount Vernon on his birthday (February 22) in 1799. Nelly’s brother, however, caused Washington to despair. Wash, as he was called, flunked out of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) and Princeton and dropped out of St. John’s College in Annapolis after a brief stay.
Although Washington commented on political matters in his private correspondence, he insisted that he would never again return to public service. Many people did not think he could stay away. Eliza Powel, the widow of a prominent Philadelphian and a close family friend, candidly told him that he would be unable to adjust to life on a remote farm after the excitement of the war and presidency. She was wrong about that–Washington obviously loved his life at Mount Vernon–although her suspicions that he soon would be back in the thick of public affairs proved correct.
Washington returned during the ‘Quasi-War,’ a national emergency in 1798. When trade disputes threatened a conflict with France, President Adams made preparations for war, including the creation of a provisional army of 20,000 fighting men. In July 1798 Adams dispatched Secretary of War James McHenry to Mount Vernon to implore Washington to take command of the army.
Washington immediately accepted the appointment on the condition that he could remain at Mount Vernon until the French actually threatened to invade. That was acceptable to Adams, and probably not unanticipated. Washington did travel to Philadelphia on November 5, however, for planning meetings with McHenry. He did not return to Mount Vernon until just before Christmas 1798. Shortly after Washington left Philadelphia, Adams, who once had said that he thought the prospect of seeing the French army in America was about as great as seeing it in Heaven, announced a diplomatic mission to France to seek a peaceful solution to the imbroglio. The sense of crisis swiftly diminished in 1799, and Washington’s interest once again turned to farming and business.
It was a busy time for Washington. He took an inventory of his work force, which included 317 slaves. Many were dower slaves, but he held clear, legal title to more than 200 chattel. Then he prepared a new will, terminating the one he had drawn up on the eve of the War of Independence. He bequeathed the use of his estate to his wife. He also awarded Martha all of the mansion’s furnishings, property in Alexandria, and the profits from the sales of his land and businesses. He deeded Mount Vernon to Bushrod Washington, his nephew, whom Adams had recently appointed to the United States Supreme Court. He allocated his remaining possessions to nearly 40 people, including approximately 9,000 acres that was to be divided among more than 20 relatives. He gave his Potomac Company stock to a university planned for the Federal District. Finally, he decreed that Billy Lee–his body servant throughout the war–be manumitted and awarded an annual pension of $30 immediately upon his owner’s death. The remainder of the slaves were to be freed upon his death, or Martha’s should she survive him.
Washington remained in such excellent health, however, that he began to plan another arduous trip for the spring of 1800 to inspect his frontier properties in the vicinity of present-day Charleston, West Virginia. In fact, when illness first invaded the mansion in 1799, it was Martha who collapsed and was briefly thought to be at death’s door. A physician diagnosed her malady as an ‘Ague & fever’ and treated her with quinine. Subsequently describing herself as’so very sick,’ Martha was incapacitated from August into October.
While she was recuperating, Washington learned of the death of his last surviving brother, Charles. Not one male in the family had lived to be 70. Nevertheless, Washington, now approaching his sixty-eighth birthday, appears to have been lighthearted that autumn and was thrilled when word arrived that Nelly had safely given birth to her first child on November 27. Washington was busy and looking toward the future. He drafted a four-year plan of operations at Mount Vernon and, in a letter written on the last day that he enjoyed good health, urged Alexander Hamilton, his aide-de-camp during the War of Independence and later his Secretary of the Treasury, to work for the establishment of a national military academy.
Washington wrote that letter on December 12, at the end of a long, cold day that he had spent out-of-doors. He had ridden out in mid-morning under heavy, gray skies. Around noon snow began to fall. Later, the snow turned to sleet, and still later to a cold rain. Washington remained outside for more than five hours, and according to Tobias Lear, his secretary, did not change out of his wet clothes or dry his hair when he returned home.
Washington awoke the following morning with a sore throat. Although he was not especially alarmed, he remained inside most of the day, except for a brief spell when he tagged trees that he wanted to have removed. By nightfall his voice had grown hoarse, but otherwise he felt fine. That evening Washington read the newspaper and listened as Lear read an account of recent debates in the Virginia assembly. He was in good spirits when he retired around 10:00 p.m.
When Washington awoke about four or five hours later, his breathing was labored, and he felt desperately ill. He roused Martha, but would not permit her to summon a physician. By dawn, his condition had further deteriorated. Unable to swallow and barely able to breathe, Washington asked Martha to send for an overseer who treated his slaves and was experienced in bleeding, a standard medical remedy of the time. Meanwhile, Lear sent for Dr. James Craik, who lived nearby and had attended Washington for more than 40 years.
The overseer arrived at 7:30 a.m. and drew off a half-pint of Washington’s blood in the useless and dangerous procedure. When Craik arrived he diagnosed Washington’s malady as quinsy, or a peritonsillar abscess. There is a greater likelihood that Washington had been struck down by a streptococcus infection, an ailment that results in asphyxia as the swelling about the glottis inhibits breathing. Craik may have been mistaken in his diagnosis, but he appreciated the seriousness of his patient’s condition and immediately sent for Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown of Port Tobacco and Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick of nearby Alexandria, hoping that one of the doctors would arrive while there was still time to save Washington.
Both physicians reached Mount Vernon by mid-afternoon and attempted a variety of expedients. They immersed their patient’s feet in warm water and wrapped his throat with a compress that had been soaked in a medication. Later, they applied a blister (a local irritant) made of cantharides–Spanish fly–and concocted a vaporizer. Washington tried without success to gargle a mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter prescribed by his doctors. Throughout the day the doctors applied poultices of wheat bran and administered two laxatives. Washington was bled three more times, the last time against the strong objections of Dr. Dick, the youngest of the three doctors and a former apprentice of Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, America’s foremost physician. Instead, Dick proposed a delicate operation to open the trachea below the site of the infection, enabling Washington to breathe. He was outvoted, however, by his colleagues, who viewed surgery as too dangerous and who, perhaps, also feared attempting such a hazardous expedient on their famous patient.
Washington steadily deteriorated. He sat in a chair in front of the fireplace during the morning but returned to bed at about 11:00 a.m., never to arise again. Around 5:00 p.m. Washington, with great difficulty, told all present that he knew he was dying and asked that his doctors do no more. He had been aware of his fate since first awakening in the darkness of early morning, he said. ‘I die hard, but I am not afraid to go,’ he whispered at about 8:00 p.m. For two hours the only sounds were his labored breathing. Then he stirred. ‘I am just going,’ he said to Lear. ‘Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.’ Martha, Lear, the doctors, and Christopher Sheels, his body servant, stayed with him, listening and watching in anxious silence. At about 10:30 p.m. on December 14, 1799, George Washington, aged 67, drew his final, difficult breath.
The following day, Lear arranged for a coffin to be constructed in Alexandria. Slaves opened and cleaned the family’s modest brick vault, located a few hundred feet from the mansion. Mount Vernon’s female domestic servants worked longer hours than usual, making mourning clothes, baking cakes, preparing punch, and attending the first mourners who descended on the estate. On the clear, cold morning of December 18, slaves placed Washington’s open casket on a wooden bier on the portico above the Potomac River. From noon onward, several hundred guests viewed the body.
At 3:00 p.m. a schooner on the Potomac fired a salute, and the procession to the gravesite commenced, led by troops from Alexandria, whose band played a dirge. Four lieutenants in the Virginia militia carried the black-draped coffin. Clergymen, representatives from the Masonic Order, approximately 100 militiamen, Washington’s closest neighbors, and his horse, led by two postilions, accompanied the family downhill. The ceremony at the tomb included both the Episcopalian Order of Burial and full Masonic rites, after which 11 nearby cannon blasted a deafening, smoky salute.
As news of Washington’s death reached beyond the Potomac, memorial services were held in every state, as well as in France and Holland, the two European nations that had recognized the United States during the War of Independence. When word arrived in Philadelphia, President Adams ordered a period of official mourning, and the clerk of the House of Representatives entered in that body’s journal: ‘Our Washington is no more.’ A few days later
Congress resolved to have Washington’s remains transferred to the Federal City and buried beneath a marble monument in the Capitol. Martha consented, but funds were not appropriated for 30 years, and the project was never undertaken.
Observances of Washington’s death varied. Local pastors conducted simple services in many small towns. College presidents preached funeral sermons on many campuses. Most cities held elaborate commemorative services. An Episcopalian bishop presided at the memorial in Williamsburg, while a Catholic bishop conducted a solemn mass in Washington’s memory at St. Peter’s in Baltimore. In Boston, which Washington’s Continental army had liberated from British occupation in March 1776, nearly a quarter of the city’s 30,000 inhabitants processed through the streets. Philadelphia reproduced the ceremony conducted at Mount Vernon, with military units accompanying a coffin and riderless horse to a Lutheran church for a mock funeral. Citizens paid their respects to the soldier whom they mourned as the man most responsible for the American victory in the War of Independence and to the leader who never abused the power entrusted to him.
This article was written by John Ferling and originally published in the December 1999 issue of American History Magazine.
John Ferling, professor of history at the State University of West Georgia, is the author of biographies of Washington and John Adams and Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson in the American Revolution.
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George Washington: Patriot, President, Planter and Purveyor of Distilled Spirits
‘I consent to your commencing a distillery, and approve of your purchasing the Still, and entering of it. And I shall not object to your converting part of the Coopers shop at the Mill to this operation.’ With these words, penned in 1797 to his recently hired farm manager, James Anderson, George Washington took another major step toward improving the financial success and independence of his vast estate.
The Virginia planter had already served his native land as a surveyor, British officer during the French and Indian War, member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Continental Congress delegate, commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and two-term president of the United States. Throughout the trials and tribulations of his public life — its honors and accolades — it appears, however, that Washington’s true passion remained his Mount Vernon home. Even during the long absences imposed by his public duties, he remained in almost constant contact with family and staff about its most mundane operations. From the time of its acquisition until his death, Washington strove to make Mount Vernon the most modern, most diversified, most efficient and most profitable plantation possible. As a result, he acquired new lands, experimented with new crops, tried new techniques in farming and animal husbandry, ran commercially successful fisheries, a gristmill and even a distillery.
Originally known as Little Hunting Creek Plantation, Washington’s holdings were part of a land grant that was given to one of his ancestors by the British crown in 1674. The property eventually passed down to George’s elder half-brother, Lawrence. He renamed the property Mount Vernon to honor British Admiral Edward Vernon, with whom he had served during Britain’s 1739-1741 conflict with Spain known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. (For having introduced a ration of rum to the British sailor’s routine, Admiral Vernon was affectionately known as ‘Old Grog.’) Soon after Lawrence’s death in 1752, 20-year-old George became sole owner of the roughly 2,300-acre plantation.
Almost immediately Washington began expanding his holdings through the selective purchase of nearby properties, and by 1787 had increased his estate to nearly 8,000 acres, organized into five farms. Each provided something unique to his operation — a beautiful spot for home and gardens overlooking the Potomac, deep-water access for ease of shipping raw materials and manufactured goods, lucrative fishing grounds, proper conditions for a commercial gristmill, decent farmland.
Initially Washington tied his fortune to the cultivation of tobacco, but by the early 1760s he began to despair of ever making a real profit from that labor-intensive monoculture. In dealings with British markets, the shipping fees, import and export duties, brokerage charges and other commissions often ate up as much as 80 percent of the total sale. When these high costs were exacerbated by Great Britain’s unilateral imposition on the Colonies of the Sugar and Stamp acts, Washington, for economic and, increasingly, political reasons, sought new sources of revenue. He began by dedicating some of his land to wheat as a cash crop instead of tobacco. Between 1765 and 1770 his annual grain production grew from 257 bushels to 6,241, and this success proved to him that foregoing tobacco and diversifying his crops offered new growth opportunities.
Washington kept abreast of the latest theories and techniques of farming, trying new practices such as crop rotation; expanded compost and fertilizer preparation, storage and application; and erosion control through cross plowing. And he maintained detailed records of his successes and failures. Mount Vernon eventually produced more that 60 different crops, including wheat, corn, buckwheat, barley, oats, clover, pasture grasses, flax, cotton, potatoes and peas. Ever the experimenter, Washington also purchased and tested the latest farm tools and equipment, even making his own modifications to the plow. ‘I am never sparing,’ he wrote in 1793, ‘in furnishing my Farms with any, and every kind of tool and implement that is calculated to do good and neat work…I shall begrudge no reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement and neatness of my Farms….’
Livestock too played an important role in Washington’s plans as a source of power, food, hides, wool and manure. By 1758 Washington managed 100 sheep, years before it was common practice with other Virginia planters. He valued them for meat, wool for spinning and hides for tanning. He used selective breeding to improve his flock, which eventually numbered around 600. Thomas Jefferson considered Washington one of the finest horsemen of his time. Although he enjoyed horse racing, owning an Arabian for that purpose, Washington viewed horses primarily as work animals. As early as 1760 he had begun a breeding program for both work and riding horses and was constantly on the lookout for excellent specimens to improve his herd. Initially he followed the common practice of allowing his hogs to roam freely during the summer, rounding them up in the fall and selecting animals to be fattened and slaughtered. Realizing that system was rather chaotic and very inefficient, he eventually constructed roofed pens with planked floors, a supply of fresh water and feeding troughs to increase fattening as well as to better protect and control his assets.
In the comparative lull between the Revolutionary War and his first term as president, another of his experiments began to change the face of American agriculture. Beginning with a jackass, received as a gift in 1785 from Spain’s King Carlos III, plus another one and two female donkeys, given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette, the ex-general began breeding them and crossbreeding donkies with horses to produce mules. Tests convinced him that mules were stronger, had more endurance and required less food than workhorses. His successes and proselytizing, to say nothing of the sale of his excess stock of mules and donkeys, greatly increased the popularity and availability of mules as farm animals throughout the United States.
While Washington constantly strived to improve his agricultural and livestock production, he also increasingly looked for ways to reduce his expenditures and increase his income. At the time he took control of the estate, there was a small blacksmith shop that not only filled the needs of Mount Vernon itself but also provided goods and services to neighbors within a five-mile radius of the property. Although initially a viable business that added needed income, as new lands were acquired it was required more and more to service the plantation. While its outside business function virtually ceased, it did serve as a model for other enterprises. Using primarily the cotton, flax and wool produced at Mount Vernon, in the mid-1760s Washington initiated a successful small cloth manufacturing operation that spun and wove cotton, linen and wool for both plantation use and sale. These small experiments helped Washington realize that increasing production of such goods and services onsite reduced the amount of cash he had to pay to buy from others, and conversely that anything produced beyond his own needs could be sold. He began to look for larger opportunities.
From time immemorial, first Native Americans and then European settlers had been harvesting the fish of the Potomac River, especially when the herring and shad ran upriver to spawn near Great Falls some 30 miles above Mount Vernon. Washington was no exception. During this annual spring run, slaves, indentured servants and even overseers were pulled from preparing the fields to seine as many fish for salting and future use as possible. As sugar production exploded in the West Indies, the need for cheap yet sustaining food to feed the ever-increasing number of slaves who worked the cane fields exploded as well, and Washington saw another opportunity. Using good river sites gained through his earlier strategic land purchases, he set up three fisheries and began shipping salted fish to the islands. Sometimes Washington leased them out to tenants to run, freeing his laborers to work the fields during fishing season. In 1770, one of those tenants, using nets 210 feet long and 20 feet high, pulled 480,000 herring and shad from the Potomac. These fisheries were his first big success at large-scale commercialization.
As grain production increased through the years, it overwhelmed the plantation’s threshing and milling facilities. To help handle the increasing volumes and operate more cleanly and efficiently, Washington ordered construction of a large 16-sided, two-story round barn of his own design. Completed in 1795, it was the first of its kind in America. It was built into an embankment, so that horses entered the barn at the top level. As they circled the building they trod on the grain on heavy floorboards that were evenly spaced to allow the separated kernels to fall below while the straw and chaff remained above. At the same time, Washington took steps to improve his milling capacity. After purchasing a pair of high-quality millstones from Europe, he replaced the gristmill that his father had built in the 1730s with a new one located closer to the Potomac, which offered easier transshipment of flour and cornmeal on the river. This new mill not only allowed him to process his own harvests but also permitted him to mill grain, for a fee, for other local farmers. He further enhanced the operation in 1791 by replacing his mill machinery with a more automated system — a new design by Delaware inventor Oliver Evans, in which all parts of its operation were powered by the mill wheel. The improved system was far more efficient, requiring only two men; the older operation had needed five.
Up until January 1797, fewer than three months before he officially retired from the presidency, almost all of Washington’s efforts to increase self-sufficiency and revenues were natural extensions of what he and his forebears had been doing all along. That changed when James Anderson, a Scotsman with knowledge of the distillation of spirits, took over the day-to-day management of Washington’s huge Virginia estate. Before the month was out, Anderson made a revolutionary, not evolutionary, proposal to his boss. He suggested establishing an entirely new enterprise: a distillery.
Washington needed some convincing. He knew little of the business and even had fears that a distillery might attract some rather unsavory folk. If they were to build it, he suggested, the operation should be located close to the mansion, so a watchful eye could be kept on the customers. Anderson, on the other hand, having quickly sized up Mount Vernon’s holdings, operations, outbuildings and water sources, proposed placing the distillery near the gristmill. With an eye toward efficiency and a minimal initial cash outlay, he may have argued that by so doing, all grain could be sent to this central location for both types of processing, and the mill and the distillery could share a water source and common river landing for shipping their products by boat to market. In addition, there was a little-used cooperage building on the site that could be converted. When Washington wrote to Anderson consenting to ‘commencing a distillery,’ his decision to trust his newly hired manager turned out to be a wise one.
In the early days of the Colonies, rum, derived from fermented sugar cane, had been the most commonly consumed hard liquor. Both during and after U.S. independence, however, Great Britain dominated much of rum production and its distribution in North America. Making a political statement, more and more Americans shunned British-controlled rum and sought a cheaper alternative: The demand for grain-based whiskey blossomed. The distillation of spirits from grain was not new to the United States. Farmers, especially those in the far western reaches of the new nation, had long recognized that it was easier and more profitable with less spoilage to ship whiskey over bad roads or waterways than the bulkier grain from which it was derived. In addition, beginning in the early 1700s conditions in the British Isles caused a decades-long emigration to the New World. Among the immigrants were large numbers of Scotch-Irish folk, with a long tradition of distilling and drinking such spirits. They brought with them their traditions and desire for grain-based alcohol, and their skills and expertise helped meet the rising U.S. demands. James Anderson was of such stock.
Anderson quickly began distilling at the cooperage. Crushed grain and malt were poured into tubs of hot water, where the grain’s starch was converted to sugar. Yeast was added to the cooled mash to start the process of fermentation. After a few days, the fermented mash was then placed into the bowls of two stills, and the bowls were heated. Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, it evaporates first, rising into a tube, or worm, where it cools, condenses and runs into a receptacle. By February 22, barely a month after receiving permission to set up shop, Anderson had barreled and stored 80 gallons of whiskey.
Four months later, in June, Anderson proposed a major expansion of the distillery. To make it a truly commercial enterprise, he wanted to purchase, for an estimated cost of $640, three new stills, several mash tubs and a new boiler. In addition, he proposed the building of a new structure to house the stills and a smaller malting house, professing ignorance of how to estimate the cost of their construction.
Before making the decision about a large expansion of this still-unfamiliar business, Washington asked the advice of his rum distiller friend, John Fitzgerald, in nearby Alexandria, Va. Fitzgerald wrote back almost immediately: ‘As I have no doubt but Mr. Anderson understands the Distillation of Spirit from Grain I cannot hesitate in my Opinion that it might be carried on to great advantage on your Estate.’ He continued by asserting that, if the quality was good, the proposed operation could sell 10 times as much as it could produce. Reassured, Washington wrote to Anderson that the distillation of spirits ‘is a business I am entirely unacquainted with, but from your knowledge of it and from the confidence you have in the profit to be derived from the establishment, I am disposed to enter upon one….’
During the last half of 1797, a new stone building was erected and the new equipment, including three copper stills manufactured in Alexandria, was purchased and installed. The distillery was in full swing by January of the following year. The tools and nature of the operation are fairly well understood from surviving documents. On the site there were as many as 50 mash tubs, and a kiln for malting and slop coolers to prepare the used mash as food for swine. The centerpiece, though, was the massive, one-story, 30-foot-by-75-foot stone structure that housed the heart of the distillery. Built of sandstone blocks quarried from Mount Vernon properties upon a foundation of river stone transported from Great Falls, it enclosed 2,250 square feet.
The five stills held a total of 616 gallons of mash. Each had its own worm and a receptacle. Specially designed wooden troughs transported water into the building to help cool the vapors in the worms. Brick furnaces and a stove provided heat for the stills and boiler. There was also a large storage cellar in which to lock up the barreled whiskey, perhaps to protect it from the undesirable elements Washington had first feared might be attracted to the operation.
What the documents do not provide, however, is a full understanding of how the equipment was arranged within the building. There remain no descriptions or drawings showing the relative placement of heat sources, stills, water troughs and other necessary components.
James Anderson’s son, John, was put in charge of the expanded distillery, and six slaves — Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James and Timothy — were assigned to the operation. The endeavor was an immediate success. By the end of 1798, the new five-still setup quickly set a pace that would yield roughly eight times the production of the two-still operation during 1797. The immense increase in production, however, quickly resulted in unforeseen problems for its owner. With all five stills running full time, the operation was quickly going through the corn available on the plantation. Some years before, Washington had begun limiting the amount of corn grown at Mount Vernon, preferring to cultivate more lucrative grains such as wheat. That earlier decision now came back to haunt him. Having assumed that he could operate with the corn grown on his own lands, he now found himself purchasing extra corn for the distillery, a cash outlay he had not anticipated.
Washington explained his predicament to his nephew William Augustine Washington: ‘My lands are not congenial with this Crop, and are much injured by the growth of it….Nothing but the indispensable use of the food for my negros (and indeed for Hogs) has restrained me from discontinuing it altogether….’ He also expressed his desire to establish an ongoing agreement with his nephew for the purchase of 500 barrels of corn annually. Most of that corn was destined for the mash tubs. Concerned about how to pay for the needed corn, he wrote Robert Lewis, one of his business representatives: ‘I have been induced…to erect a large Distillery at my Mill…which…has cost me a considerable sum already, but I find these expenditures are but a small part of the advances I must make before I shall receive any return for them….I beg you to exert yourself in the collection of my Rents, and that you would let me know…not only as to the amount of the sum, but also as to the period of its payment, that I may regulate matters accordingly.’ In addition, Washington had to search for new markets for his alcohol. In another letter to William, he mentioned having sent him two barrels of whiskey, adding: ‘if you should want more, or any of your neighbors any, it would be convenient, & always proper to supply you — and for grain, Rye or Indian Corn in exchange.’
Washington maintained meticulous records of most of his plantation’s activities, and the distillery was not excepted from the practice. Detailed ledgers list production figures, grain purchases from whom and for how much, and at what price what quantity of what type of liquor was sold to whom. The ledgers show that during the life of the distillery, ‘whiskey’ — un-aged corn liquor of a kind that might later have been called ‘moonshine,’ ‘white dog’ or ‘white lightning’ — made up roughly 90 percent of his whiskey production and sales.
Washington hoped to diversify this operation, and he experimented with varying qualities of whiskeys. One ledger records that, by further processing his basic product or adding flavors such as cinnamon and persimmon, he produced small quantities of at least six other whiskeys — ‘common,’ ‘rectified,’ ‘fine rectified,’ ‘rectified 4th proof,”strong proof’ and ‘rye whiskey.’ These specialized, higher grades made up the remaining 10 percent of his whiskey production. He also distilled small quantities of apple and peach brandies and rum.
Guided by James Anderson, the expanded distillery produced the mainstay whiskey in large quantities year round. While some was reserved for use on the plantation, most was shipped to as many as 270 clients. It was a diverse group containing a number of merchants, innkeepers, grocers and other businessmen and women who presumably resold it to their own clients. Individuals — overseers, boatmen, neighbors, planters, a cartwright, a weaver, a butcher, among others — apparently obtained the whiskey for their own personal consumption or that of their employees and slaves. While cash payments were made in many cases, the whiskey was also bartered for quantities of corn, wheat, rye, salt, mustard, clover seed and a wide miscellany of other items. (Presumably much of that grain was used in the production of more whiskey.) Some of Washington’s overseers and contract laborers, as well as a doctor and a seamstress, accepted quantities of whiskey in partial fulfillment of negotiated contracts for services to the plantation. While most of the clientele were from Alexandria and the Maryland and Virginia counties neighboring Mount Vernon, at least one batch was shipped as far away as Richmond, Va., indicating a possible expansion of the market.
Of the specialty grades, made only in the spring and fall, limited quantities were kept for Washington’s personal use. The rest went to only seven people — all either prominent businessmen, family members or close friends, and to his physician — in exchange for cash, goods and services.
Upon Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, the distillery, which became the property of his nephew Lawrence Washington, began to fall into decline. The Andersons — father and son — continued to oversee its operation during the next four years until they were discharged by the new owner. Lawrence then rented the distillery out for another five years. Record keeping degenerated during this time period, but an advertisement in an Alexandria, Va., newspaper offering Mount Vernon whiskey for sale that appeared as late 1808 suggests that the distillery was still producing then. Soon thereafter, however, the operation was closed down and the distillery was dismantled to provide building materials for nearby homes. It was a sad end for a business Washington had nurtured into one of his primary revenue and profit makers. The expanded distillery possessed the largest distilling structure with one of the largest capacities in the Chesapeake region and perhaps the nation. Its total output jumped from about 660 gallons of alcohol in 1797 to roughly 4,270 in 1798 and, in its record year, 1799, to nearly 10,000 gallons, with an estimated profit for that year of a hefty $7,500. Although comparative numbers are hard to find, since detailed records such as those kept at Mount Vernon were a rarity at other distilleries across the country, it is clear that Washington’s distillery was among the top producers of its time.
George Washington influenced virtually every aspect of the process that united 13 colonies into nationhood. His leadership can be seen in our military, political, judicial, legislative, agricultural and economic systems. He was eulogized by friend and fellow soldier Henry Lee as ‘first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.’ Had he been able to apply his personal touch to the distillery just a few years longer, he might have become first in that endeavor as well.
This article was written by Philip Brandt George and originally published in February 2004 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of American History.
George Washington’s Magnificent Obsession
Just 11 miles from Reagan National Airport, Washington’s ‘Home House’ still imparts a sense of remoteness and serenity
Mount Vernon was more than George Washington’s home; it was his project. From the time the Virginia property came into his hands in 1754, when he was a bold and desperately ambitious young major in the Virginia militia, until his death two weeks shy of a new century in 1799, by which time he was the embodiment of American grandeur and rectitude, he never stopped tinkering with the place. For much of his life, Washington was away from home on thunderously urgent business, and so he directed most of the work on Mount Vernon from a certain Olympian remove. But his correspondence is so filled with appraising references to wallpaper, nails, paint, hinges, locks, putty and glass that the man who emerges from it seems as much a frustrated handyman as the presiding figure of his age.
Even when things were at their bleakest, when his new country was falling apart before his eyes, Washington never lost interest in his fixer-upper on the Potomac River. In September 1776, in one of the first crucial engagements of the Revolutionary War, the colonial army suffered a humiliating rout on Manhattan Island, fleeing in panic from the invading British and Hessian forces as Washington rode among his troops on horseback trying futilely to beat them back into action with his riding whip.
“If I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave,” he wrote to Lund Washington, the cousin who managed Mount Vernon in his absence, “I should put him in my stead with my feelings.” But in the same letter, penned in a dark hour when his cause seemed hopeless and he felt his reputation sagging into disgrace, Washington was still issuing instructions for work on his dream house. “The chimney in the new room should be exactly in the middle of it,” he instructed Lund, with a whiplash change of tone and topic, “doors and everything else to be exactly answerable and uniform—in short I would have the whole executed in a masterly manner.”
The homegrown Palladian mansion that Washington continually remodeled on his 8,000-acre estate sits on a high bluff above the Potomac. Although it is now just 11 miles downriver from D.C.’s Reagan National Airport, Washington’s “Home House” still manages to impart a formidable sense of remoteness and serenity. And if you’re fortunate enough to have the place to yourself, as I did one evening thanks to the hospitality of the Mount Vernon staff, Washington seems no more remote a presence than the fireflies on the sloping lawn or the swaying branches of the ages-old pecan tree that towers above the southern wing of the mansion.
I was sitting that night on the piazza, the commodious high-ceilinged ground-level porch that faces the river and runs from one end of the house to the other. It is a beguilingly informal and versatile space that George and Martha Washington often used as an open-air dining room. An extensive veranda like this—which has become a mainstay of North American domestic architecture—might seem to us an obvious way of taking advantage of Mount Vernon’s splendid location, but at the time the piazza was built, nothing of the sort had yet been seen in England or the New World. The supremely practical George Washington thought it up on his own.
From the piazza, I looked out over the lawn in the fading light. A gentle grassy slope led down to a sharp precipice planted with trees; my eye coasted over the leafy canopies of this “hanging wood,” past the deer park below and on out to the immemorial Potomac. The only hint of the present century was the steady electric light of a single boat and the reverberating yammer of its engine.
George Washington’s father Augustine built a compact and unassuming house here around 1735 that George’s beloved half-brother Lawrence substantially rebuilt before his death in 1752. When George subsequently became master of Mount Vernon, he raised the elevation from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 stories and proceeded to gradually transform the house into an imposing but never intimidating mansion with multiple dining rooms and parlors, eight bedchambers, a study and a cluster of outbuildings, known as dependencies, elegantly bound to the main house by colonnaded passageways. A few of his building sketches survive, and they are plain and clear and sometimes highly inventive. “Washington was his own architect and builder,” wrote his wife’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, “laying off everything himself. The buildings, gardens and grounds all rose to ornament and usefulness under his fostering hand.”
Mount Vernon was an endless, expensive, constantly expanding project made possible only by the hundreds of slaves the Washingtons owned
Washington spent his whole adult life constructing Mount Vernon, and to a degree it is a simulacrum of his own complex and ever-evolving personality. It is, for example, a monument to privacy and containment. On the outside, there is a sense of grandeur but little ostentation apart from the rusticated sidings he copied from pattern books. Inside, however, in the dining rooms and parlors, one finds a hint of the vain inner self that it was Washington’s life’s work to tame. The walls in these rooms are painted with insistent theatrical colors—glowering Prussian blue and several eye-popping shades of verdigris green—that were the height of fashion in Washington’s day and are as vibrant as the outer walls are austere. The riotous colors serve to remind us that the grave, sober leader who publicly disdained pomp and made a show of turning away acclaim also spent a good deal of effort designing his own uniforms and obsessively plotting his worldly advancement.
Still, it is the public Washington—so even-tempered, even-handed and magisterial—who dominates Mount Vernon, just as he dominates history. During the eight years he was away fighting the Revolution, he almost never left the army, coming home only for a total of 10 days, but with an almost godlike omniscience he monitored the ongoing construction on the house.
“What are you going about next?” he wrote to Lund in 1781. “Have you any prospect of getting paint and Oyl? Are you going to repair the Pavement of the Piazza? Is anything doing, or like to be done with respect to the Wall at the edge of the Hill in front of the House? Have you made good the decayed Trees at the ends of the House, in the Hedges, &ca. Have you made any attempts to reclaim more Land for meadow? &ca. &ca.”
It was an endless, expensive, constantly expanding project, made possible only by the hundreds of slaves that Washington and his wife owned. Most of these slaves were field hands, but some were skilled carpenters and housewrights. Washington’s conscience was troubled, though not tortured, by slavery. He wished to see it disappear “by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees,” but in the meantime he needed all that free labor—all those skilled hands wielding froes and beetles and adzes and draw knives—to shape his timbers, to cut his cypress shingles, to mix his plaster and fire his bricks and to bevel and rusticate the pine planks that covered the mansion, giving the appearance of cut stone.
It was not just the mansion that was constantly being repaired and expanded but the whole plantation, with its stables, slaves’ quarters, storehouses, kitchens, coach houses and laundry yards. There was even an innovative “dung repository” for compost. One of the plantation’s most intriguing structures was a two-story treading barn. The 16-sided structure of this visionary barn approximated a circle. Inside, a horse could walk around and around the circumference of the second story, flailing wheat with its hooves. As the grain was separated from the chaff, it drifted down to the collecting floor below through gaps in the sturdy white oak planking, a process that was much more efficient than treading on open ground. The barn fell into ruin and disappeared sometime near the end of the 19th century, but an exact replica was raised in 1996.
After poking my head in the various outbuildings, I strolled through the two remarkable gardens—one for growing fruits and vegetables, one for ornamental flowers—that flank the bowling green extending from the west face of the mansion. It was an intoxicating creation, not just the plants but the beautiful terraced brick walls enclosing them. Even the ancestral privies, with their spacious summer-house feel, were part of Washington’s binding vision: the studied harmony of structure and open space that reigned over the entire Mount Vernon grounds.
“I am now I believe fixed at this seat,” Washington wrote after his marriage to Martha in 1759, “with an agreeable Consort for Life and hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced amidst a wide and bustling World.”
Washington was 51 when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783, but neither the bustling world nor his own bustling nature could tolerate his living a quiet and inconsequential life as a country squire. His years of peace at Mount Vernon were chronically interrupted by bouts of war and political turmoil and by the careful tending his reputation demanded, especially after he reluctantly took the oath of office as our first president in 1789. In the end, that reputation almost totally obscured him. “Washington,” Abraham Lincoln once declaimed, “is the mightiest name on earth.”
When Washington finally managed to retreat from public life, hundreds of people stopped in at Mount Vernon annually to take advantage of his hospitality. He was a convivial yet somewhat elusive host, frequently slipping away to his bedroom and private study, or to make his rounds of the plantation. “I am not only retired from all public employments,” he wrote Lafayette, “but I am retiring within myself….I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers.”
The studied harmony of structure and open space reigns over Mount Vernon
George Washington sleeps with his fathers today in a brick tomb built to his specifications on a wooded slope between the mansion and the river. In a sense, it was Mount Vernon that killed him. With a throat already raw, he had insisted upon going out on a cold and drizzly December day, eager to mark some trees for removal so that the view of the river from the piazza would be improved.
He went to bed in good spirits that night but woke in the early hours of the morning with a violent inflammation of the throat that slowly squeezed off his breath.
“I find I am going,” he said.
He was 67. Visitors are not allowed in the bedchamber he shared with Martha, and in which he died, but they can look through the door just long enough to take in the Spartan details. When I was on the tour I lingered there as long as I politely could, but when I turned my eyes to the bed on which Washington had died, I felt an unexpected spasm of emotion. It was as if after spending a day at Mount Vernon I had actually come to know the figure who had once lain there slowly suffocating.
“I die hard, but I am not afraid to go,” Washington gasped toward the end of his long last day. It was a grim and premature passage, though one would like to hope he took some comfort in the fact that he was dying in a room he himself had built, that he was passing into history within the shelter of his own creation.
“Washington’s Magnificent Obsession” appeared in the August 2008 issue of American History.