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Collection George Washington Papers

The Worlds of Washington

Despite ongoing links with the great outside world, Washington felt happiest within his neighborhood, bounded on the south by the James River and on the north by the Potomac.

As he rode about Mount Vernon on his daily inspection trips, Washington could turn his eyes frequently to the shipping traffic on the Potomac, his principal link with the great outside world. Vessels with such names as the Fair American, the Betsy, and the Charming Polly plied the river, some trading with the ports of Virginia and Maryland and some bound for far more distant anchorages in North America, the West Indies, or Europe. Most of the schooners, brigs, and ships that Washington watched come upriver were bound for Alexandria's docks and warehouses, and often their cargoes included goods for him: fine clothing and fabrics, bridles and saddles, books and surveying instruments, tools and nails, delicate chinaware and jewelry, fruits and spices, and great wines from France and the Madeiras. Outward bound, they carried the tobacco--and in later years the wheat or flour--that were sent to pay for his imports.

Now and then his commercial representatives in London, Robert Cary & Co., would err and place his shipment aboard a vessel bound for another Virginia river, such as the Rappahannock, and he must endure not only the inconvenience of further transportation but also the risk of loss. On one occasion he warned the Cary company never to ship by any vessel not bound for the Potomac, for when a recent cargo via the Rappahannock finally reached him, he found "The Porter entirely Drank out" (10 Aug. 1760, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).

Washington's Extended Neighborhood

Moving along the growing network of roads that ran from New England to Georgia were more goods and the all-important packets of letters and newspapers that kept Washington in touch with an expanding nation in a restless world. Besides the English journals that came to him, he regularly read American newspapers and periodicals from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Annapolis, and Williamsburg.

There was little isolation from the world at any time during his life. His diary for 1751-52 relates a voyage to Barbados when he was nineteen, with his dying half brother Lawrence. The next two accounts concern the early phases of the French and Indian War, the momentous struggle for control of the North American continent in which he commanded a Virginia regiment. By the 1760s, when Washington's diaries resume, young George III was on the British throne, and the American colonists were beginning to feel an ominous sense of discontent that during the 1770s grew into rebellion and placed Washington in command of a revolutionary army.

After the War of Independence, Washington never again fought on a field of battle, but military matters and political affairs of national and international import continued to engage his attention. In 1787 he journeyed to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, which he chaired. During his two terms as president of the new nation there were no wars, but serious diplomatic problems arose with Great Britain, France, and Spain in 1793 and 1794. Even in retirement near the end of his life, Washington could not escape the turmoil among nations. When in 1798 relations with France deteriorated to the point that a sea war was developing, old General Washington was placed at the head of a nominal land force that never took the field.

In such a world, Washington felt happiest within a much smaller region bounded on the south by the James River and on the north by the Potomac. This was his neighborhood, somewhat extended, a world of very different responsibilities and pleasures that is best revealed in his diaries.

At the heart of this world lay Mount Vernon, the Potomac River plantation that Washington's father Augustine had established in the 1730s on an old family patent and which his half brother Lawrence had inherited and built up before his death in 1752. It was to Mount Vernon that young Colonel Washington came when, in 1758, his involvement in the French and Indian War was finished, for the plantation was now his home, Lawrence's widow having leased it to him four years earlier. It would become permanently his by right of inheritance when she died in 1761. In the meantime, Washington settled at Mount Vernon, thinking that his military career had ended forever. He was prepared for country living, a bit of politics, and plenty of riding to the hounds. The good life truly began for him in January 1759 with his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, a sensible young widow with a handsome dowry and two small children nicknamed Patsy and Jacky.

Washington made this survey of land in Frederick County, Va., for Thomas Loftan in 1751. (Smithsonian Institution photo no. 49445).

Washington was passionately devoted to Mount Vernon, eagerly extending its borders during the next three decades with numerous purchases of surrounding lands and striving constantly to improve its buildings, fields, and furnishings. But he did not neglect his immediate neighbors in Fairfax County nor did they disregard him. He became a vestryman of the local parish, a magistrate of the county court, a trustee of Alexandria, and one of Fairfax's two burgesses in Virginia's legislature, a position that he held from 1765 to 1775. In the course of carrying out the duties of those offices and of conducting the daily business of his plantation, he came to know well a host of local merchants, craftsmen, farmers, and planters. One of the most notable was George Mason of Gunston Hall, with whom Washington traded horticultural specimens and with whom he sometimes disagreed politically.

But Washington's closest ties, both of friendship and personal interest, were with the Fairfax family, members of the British aristocracy, whose principal American seat was at Belvoir only a few miles down the Potomac from Mount Vernon. There until 1773 lived George William Fairfax, member of the governor's Council and collector of customs for the south Potomac Naval District. His influence was derived from his father's cousin, Thomas Fairfax, sixth Baron Fairfax of Cameron, proprietor of all the land between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers from their mouths to their headwaters, the area that was known as the North Neck of Virginia in Washington's time. Lord Fairfax had the exclusive power to grant lands in the Northern Neck and the right to collect annual quitrents of two shillings per one hundred acres on lands the he granted, privileges that he retained until the Revolution.

The proprietor's home was a hunting lodge called Greenway Court, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Frederick County. It too was an area that Washington knew well, for as a youth he surveyed dozen's of Lord Fairfax's grants in the Shenandoah Valley and the valleys beyond. He himself acquired lands along Bullskin Run, a tributary of the Shenandoah River, lands which he retained until his death. During the French and Indian War he was charged for a while with the defense of this region, and for seven years before he was elected a burgess from Fairfax, the freeholders of Frederick sent him to Williamsburg as one of their representatives. In the 1770s and 1780s two of Washington's three younger brothers, Samuel and Charles, also found opportunities west of the Blue Ridge, settling on lands of their own within a few miles of Bullskin.

At the other end of the Northern Neck, south and east of Mount Vernon, lay another part of Washington's extended neighborhood, a region of concern to him mainly because of family ties. Westmoreland County, stretching for about forty miles along the Potomac, was the first home of the Washington family in the New World. There lived Washington's half brother Augustine and his favorite younger brother, Jack, and it was there, on the bank of Pope's Creek, that Washington was born. Farther up the Potomac, about halfway between Westmoreland County and Mount Vernon, was the Chotank area, part of Stafford County until 1776 and then of King George County. In that locality lived a number of Washingtons: brother Sam until 1770, and many distant cousins, some of whom Washington had known from his childhood. Several miles west of Chotank, at Fredericksburg on the south bank of the Rappahannock, was the home of Fielding Lewis, husband of Washington's sister Betty, and before 1780, the home of brother Charles. Across the river from Fredericksburg was the Ferry Farm, where Washington lived as a boy and where his mother, Mary Ball Washington, resided until old age obliged her in 1771 to retire to a house in the town, there to spend the last eighteen years of her life.

At the southern extremity of Washington's extended neighborhood was the provincial capital of Williamsburg and near it, on the York and Pamunkey rivers, were the principal lands of the Custis family and the homes of their relations, the Dandridges and the Bassetts. For Washington this was an area to which he came to fulfill his duties as a burgess, to settle accounts with merchants, and to see that the affairs of his Custis stepchildren were properly managed. But it was also the place in which he attended the theater and balls, dined with men of note, and began to move into the role of an American leader, which eventually took him away from his beloved neighborhood again. Indeed, the network of interconnecting regions between the Potomac and the James that made up that neighborhood helped to develop in Washington that broad feeling of kinship and responsibility for men of differing experience and outlook which enabled him to enter the larger world beyond with ease.

But seldom was his home on the Potomac far from his thoughts, and never did he fail to return there when he could, for it was at Mount Vernon that all his worlds came together. From both inside and outside his extended neighborhood came a galaxy of people from all walks of life to visit him. Some were friends and relatives who came for a holiday, to play cards, to ride to the hounds, or to shoot ducks. Others came on business, to discuss politics and land transactions, to deal in wheat, flour, fish, and other commodities, to bring their mares for breeding, to call at his mill and, in the last years, at his distillery, or sometimes just to ask for help in solving their problems.

After the Revolution he wrote his mother, who had suggested that she might wish to move to Mount Vernon, that "in truth it may be compared to a well resorted tavern, as scarcely any strangers who are going from north to south, or from south to north, do not spend a day or two at it. . . . What with the sitting up of Company; the noise and bustle of servants, and many other things you would not be able to enjoy that calmness and serenity of mind, which... you ought now to prefer" (15 Feb. 1787, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).

With this endless flow of friends, neighbors, and the idly curious coming to his home, Washington must have thought it an unusual day indeed when on 30 June 1785, at a time when he truly believed that he was done with service to his country, he wrote in his diary that he "dined with only Mrs. Washington which I believe is the first instance of it since my retirement from public life."