Washington and the New Agriculture
No theme appears more frequently in the writings of Washington than his love for the land--more precisely, his own land. His estate and those who inhabited it were his constant concern.
No theme appears more frequently in the writings of Washington than his love for the land--more precisely, his own land. From the ordered beauty of the mansion house grounds to the muddiest fields on Bullskin plantation in the Shenandoah Valley, his estate and those who inhabited it were his constant concern. The diaries are a monument to that concern.
In his letters he referred often, as an expression of this devotion and its resulting contentment, to an Old Testament passage. After the Revolution, when he had returned to Mount Vernon, he wrote the marquis de Lafayette 1 Feb. 1784: "At length my Dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig-tree". On the occasion of another joyous homecoming after his two terms as president, the phrase came back to him. He wrote to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., 15 May 1797, that if he ever were to see distant friends again, "it must be under my own Vine and Fig tree as I do not think it probable that I shall go beyond the radius of 20 miles from them" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).1
1. "And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree," 1 Kings 4:25. For similar passages, see 2 Kings 18:31, and Micah 4:4. The allusion occurs at least eleven times in GW's letters of 1796 and 1797, written to such old comrades as Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Rufus King, Charles Vaughan, and Lafayette. To the earl of Buchan he wrote 4 July 1797: "Be these things however as they may, as my glass is nearly run, I shall endeavour in the shade of my Vine & Fig tree to view things in the 'Calm light of mild Philosophy'" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
Maintaining the mansion house and its grounds, which required constant attention from carpenters and gardeners, was in part a diversion; farming, on the other hand, was a profession in which he took immense pride. "I shall begrudge no reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement & neatness of my Farms," he wrote manager William Pearce on 6 Oct. 1793, "for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order, and every thing trim, handsome, & thriving about them; nor nothing hurts me more than to find them otherwise" (Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York).
The surviving diaries which deal with agriculture begin in 1760, a year sometimes used to denote the beginning of a new agriculture in England. It was also the year of the ascension of George III, a monarch so fond of farming that he maintained experimental plots at Windsor and submitted articles for publication under the name of his farm overseer. The influence of English agriculture on Washington and others in this country--Jefferson included--was indeed great.
Before the agricultural revolution in England, farmers there had relied upon a three-year crop rotation: winter grain, a spring crop, and a year of fallow. The revolution brought forage crops, roots, and "artificial," or nonnative, grasses, an entire new system of cultivation pioneered by Jethro Tull. Tull mistakenly believed that plants were fed by tiny particles of soil and that the secret of good farming was to keep the soil well pulverized so the roots might take up the particles. To accomplish this he devised "horse-hoeing," or deep plowing, with crops drilled in rows so that the cultivating implements could pass between them. Although his theory about soil particles was wrong, his cultivating practices marked the beginning of mechanization. But the science of agriculture was changing rapidly. In 1760 Washington was a practitioner of Tull's horse-hoeing husbandry. At his death in 1799 he was devoted to the more sophisticated experiments and writings of Arthur Young and practiced a seven-year rotation.
The period extending from his return after the Revolution until his death was a time of intensive scientific agriculture for Washington. He was faced with the prospect of rebuilding his very large farms after the years of neglect they had suffered while he was the commanding general. He also faced the realization, with many of his fellow Virginians, that soil exhaustion and the evils of a one-crop agriculture were, together with slavery, edging them toward disaster. A general agricultural depression in the United States added to the problem. Washington wrote to George William Fairfax 10 Nov. 1785 that he never rode to his plantations "without seeing something which makes me regret having [continued] so long in the ruinous mode of farming which we are in" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress)
At this point, Arthur Young (1741-1820) came into Washington's life. The English agriculturist had read a letter which Washington had written extolling the virtues of manure.2 Young then began a correspondence which was to last for many years, saying he thought it possible that Washington was as good a farmer as he was a general. Sending the first four volumes of his Annals of Agriculture(1784-1808), Young also offered to obtain grain seeds, farm implements, and other items for Washington.
2. GW had asked George William Fairfax 30 June 1785 to help him find a farm manager in England who knew how to plow, sow, mow, hedge, ditch "& above all, Midas like, one who can convert every thing he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
On 6 Aug. 1786 Washington sent him a grateful response. "Agriculture has never been amongst the most favorite amusements of my life, though I never possessed much skill in art, and nine years' total inattention to it, has added nothing to a knowledge which is best understood from practice; but with the means you have been so obliging as to furnish me, I shall return to it (though rather late in the day) with hope & confidence" (Rosenbach Foundation, Philadelphia). Washington ask Young to sent him two plows with extra shares and coulters and the best varieties of cabbage, turnip, sainfoin, winter vetch, and ryegrass seeds, as well as any other grasses which might seem valuable.
One of Washington's great preoccupations, during his whole career in agriculture, was finding the right crops for the soil, climate, and practical needs of his Mount Vernon establishment. His determination to throw off the bondage of single-crop farming seemed at times almost too dogged. The number of field crops he raised, attempted to raise, or at least experimented with on a small scale is well above sixty. In a set of "Notes & Observations" he kept for 1785-86 (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress) he mentions planting barley, clover, corn, carrots, cabbage, flax, millet, oats, orchard grass, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, rye, spelt, turnips, timothy, and wheat.
His experience with tobacco typifies the change in his thinking. Early in the diaries it is his all-important cash crop--the shipment he sends to England every year to exchange for goods he cannot obtain in America. When he drastically reduced his tobacco production he became, in the terminology of the day, no longer a planter but a farmer. One English observer wrote that Washington had no land left which would bring in a good crop of tobacco without appropriating woodland badly needed as a source of firewood for his family and slaves. Also, it required more manure to raise tobacco than his farms could produce (Richard Parkinson, A Tour in America, in 1798, 1799, and 1800. . . . .[London, 1805], 2:423-24) By 1766 he was saying that he raised no tobacco at all except at his dower plantations on the York River, and in 1768 he repeated this assertion. He said he raised no tobacco at all on the Potomac.
He could never give up tobacco entirely, however; it was still being raised in 1790 on the Mount Vernon farms. George Augustine Washington's farm report for 20 Aug. reveals that for the preceding week twenty man-days were spent at Muddy Hole in weeding, topping, and suckering tobacco, and similar work was being done at Dogue Run, River Farm, and Union Farm.
Washington raised alfalfa from 1760 to 1795, then gave it up in favor of chicory. He tried the horsebean, as did Jefferson, but it could not thrive in the hot Virginia summers. He tried buckwheat with enthusiasm, both as a feed for livestock and as a green manure, and finally concluded that it depleted as much as it enriched the soil. He raised burnet, sainfoin, ryegrass, hop clover, tick trefoil, guinea grass, hemp, Jerusalem artichoke, Siberian melilot, field peas, and potatoes. He kept on with flax even after Arthur Young had chided him for wasting his time and lands on it; it was essential for his spinning and weaving operations. He even hoped to give up most of his corn crop late in life and buy what he needed, because the hard substratum of clay on his farms made it difficult to till the crop properly without serious erosion. He needed corn because he believed that his slaves did not thrive as well on wheat as on cornmeal, and because he was fond of it himself. "General Washington had so habituated himself to eating the Indian corn bread, that I know some instances of tavern-keepers having to send several miles for it, for his breakfast" (Richard Parkinson, A Tour in America, in 1798, 1799, and 1800. . . . .[London, 1805], 2:632).
Experimentation with all these many crops was one of Washington's chief delights as a farmer. He tried drill culture instead of broadcasting the seed; he varied the distance between rows; he planted potatoes and peas between the corn rows. He tried different rates of seeding, carefully noting them in his diaries and other memoranda. In Sept. 1764 he sowed oats on the Dogue Run farm to see if it could endure the winter as his wheat did. Apparently the crop failed. Learning of his interest in experimental agriculture, admirers at home and abroad were eager to assist him. If tabulated, Washington's experiments in agronomy might not appear too different from those of agronomists in the twentieth century.
His experiments with manures extended to animal dung, marl, green crops plowed under, and in at least one instance mud from the Potomac River bottom. In Oct. 1785 he borrowed a scow from Col. George Gilpin to use in collecting mud "to try the efficacy of it as a manure" (GW to Gilpin, 29 Oct. 1785, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union).
The growing shortage of timber with which to make rail fences caused him to turn to live hedges for fencing. He tried honey locust, Lombardy poplar, cedar, and some of the hundreds of species of thorned trees and shrubs. His plan was to start such fences with the fast-growing willows and poplars (which he then thought would turn back any farm animal but a hog), while the slower cedars and locusts were coming up to thicken the hedge. He told manager William Pearce 22 Nov. 1795 that nothing concerning his farms--even the crops--made him so solicitous as his desire to get all his fields enclosed with hedge fences. And the following year, when his crop of honey locust died, he lamented to Pearce that "it would seem I think as if I never should get forward in my plan of hedging" (22 May 1796, Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York). By then he had become resigned to the fact that no live hedge would turn back a hog, but that any tree which would tolerate close planting could be used to fence in other livestock. Another decade was to pass before Lewis and Clark would send back to Jefferson specimens of the Osage orange, Maclura pomifera, from the West--one of the most successful of all hedge plants in restraining livestock. Except hogs, of course.
Improved cropping calls for improved machinery, as Washington knew, and he shared Jefferson's interest in the mechanical aspects of agriculture. The two men visited the farm of Samuel Powel, near Philadelphia, in 1791 to see the operation of a new threshing machine. It was a primitive device harvesting only six bushels an hour "fit for the miller," but Powel felt that a larger unit might produce 100 to 130 bushels a day (Arthur Young, Annals of Agriculture & Other Useful Arts [London, 1784-1815], 17 , 206-8). Five years later Jefferson built a similar thresher, and Washington was enthusiastic about it. He wrote Jefferson 6 July 1796: "If you can bring a moveable threshing Machine, constructed upon simple principles to perfection, it will be among the most valuable institutions in this Country" (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress). When the farms of the Mount Vernon estate were inventoried in 1800, the listing for the River Farm included one threshing machine, probably a stationary one ViMtV).3
3. Other equipment at River Farm was less sophisticated: 8 plows, 10 harrows, 3 ox carts, a horse cart, 20 weeding hoes, 8 axes, 2 mortising axes, 6 mattocks, 2 spades, 3 shovels, 8 rakes with iron teeth, 3 mauling wedges, a pair of steelyards, and a flax rake. Among the more complicated implements at Dogue Run were Dutch fans, double moldboard plows, cultivators, wheat and corn drills, and a machine for gathering clover seed (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union).
Like most farmers through the ages, Washington was most fascinated by the plow and its potential for advancing agriculture. He ordered a Rotheram patent plow from England 6 Mar. 1765, instructing the firm of Crosbies & Trafford that it ought to be made extremely light, "as our Lands are not so stiff as yours nor our Horses so strong" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). The Rotheram, dating from 1730, was a swing plow of compact design, lighter of frame and with a better moldboard than earlier designs. Made in Rotheram, Yorkshire, it had a coulter and plowshare of iron and a breast covered with iron plate. Farmers in England and Scotland liked its light draft and low cost of manufacture.
Years later, at Washington's request, Arthur Young sent two plows with extra shares and coulters, capable of a nine-inch furrow from four to eight inches deep--depending upon the friability of the soil. Young thought it should be drawn by two stout oxen or horses (Young to GW, 1 Feb. 1787, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). By 1788 Washington had found another model he liked so well that he told Thomas Snowden 3 Oct., "I mean to get into the use of them generally" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). In the end, however, it was the old reliable Rotheram which pleased him most. He told Benjamin Latrobe in 1796 that he preferred it over all other plows but had found replacement parts impossible to get (Benjamin Henry Latrobe, The Journal of Latrobe [New York, 1905], 60-61).
Livestock was another vital interest of Washington's, though it is not as apparent--either in the diaries or the letters--as his preoccupation with crops. He was fully aware of the breeding required to prosper with livestock and equally aware of the shortcomings of American farmers in that regard. "The fact is," he wrote Arthur Young 18 June 1792, "we have, in a manner, everything to learn that respects neat & profitable husbandry" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). And to Sir John Sinclair he said 20 Oct. 1792, "we have been so little in the habit of attending either to the breed or improvement of our Stock" (British Museum: Add. Ms. 5757; Letterbook Copy, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress)
His own self-confessed failures in husbandry were due more to his long absences from home than to a lack of good intentions; his letters to his farm managers are filled with exhortations about the care, culling, and breeding of his stock--especially sheep and swine. "At Shearing time . . . let there be a thorough culling out, of all the old, and indifferent sheep from the flocks, that they may be disposed of, & thereby save me the mortification of hearing every week of their death!" he wrote William Pearce 6 April 1794 (Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York).
Washington customarily culled his flock of unthrifty lambs, wethers, and ewes and took care to withhold from market the ram lambs with the best conformation and most wool. He wrote Sir John Sinclair 15 Mar. 1793 that he normally raised from 600 to 1,000 head of sheep and that if he could always be at home to attend to their management he could produce five pounds of wool from each animal and from eighteen to twenty-two pounds of mutton per quarter. He attributed this success in part to the choice of good rams from English stock which he occasionally could obtain, "notwithstanding your prohibitary Laws, or customs" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). The best wool he produced was, he thought, equal to the finest Kentish wool.
Cattle were raised both to serve as oxen and to provide meat. At a time when most Virginians kept cattle in open pens the year around, Washington housed his in sheds from November until May, instructing his managers that they were to be well fed and carefully watered, the ice being regularly broken in cold weather to give them access to clean water. When 300 head of cattle brought him only 30 calves, he decided that "old and debilitated bulls" must be to blame. Despite the rarity of imported stock, some did find its way to America. Washington told manager James Anderson 8 Jan. 1797 to see if he could buy a bull from Henry Gough of Baltimore, even if the price was high. "I should not stand so much upon the price, provided the breed is to be depended upon" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
Of milk and butter production we learn little from his papers, although he expressed to Pearce 2 Nov. 1794 a desire to get into the dairy business--thinking it might be profitable because of his proximity to Alexandria, Georgetown, and the Federal City (Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York). He sometimes supplemented his own butter production by purchases.
His swine ran loose in fenced woodlands until it was time to select the best for fattening in pens. They rooted and shoved their way through his hedges and eluded any attempt to count them. In listing his livestock on the various farms he could only say, in effect, "plus an uncertain number of hogs." He once directed his manager to put a dozen young shoats in a sty and keep an exact account of the cost of raising them for a year. Later he brought up the possibility of raising hogs in pens from birth, at least experimentally. But, as most of his swine must always run at large, he insisted that none be brought from the woodlands to be fattened until they reached sufficient size and age. "I had rather have a little good, than much bad, Porke," he told Anthony Whitting 4 Nov. 1792 (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
The records speak little about poultry. The weekly reports from Washington's manager faithfully record the number of chickens, ducks, and geese on each farm, but the flocks were not large. At a time when wildfowl was abundant, no extensive work with domestic fowls was necessary.
A few days before his death in Dec. 1799, Washington was hard at work on a plan for his future farming operations. He drew up a scheme for each of the farms at Mount Vernon, setting forth in minute detail such matters as crop rotation, the handling of pasture lands and meadows, and use of manures (including the systematic penning of cattle and sheep on regularly shifted temporary enclosures to fertilize the land). His instructions for the River Farm, written 10 Dec. 1799, closed with a characteristic statement: "There is one thing however I cannot forbear to add, and in strong terms; it is, that whenever I order a thing to be done, it must be done; or a reason given at the time, or as soon as the impracticability is discovered, why it cannot; which will produce a countermand, or change." Any other course of action was disagreeable to him, he said, "having been accustomed all my life to more regularity, and punctuality, and know that nothing but system and method is required to accomplish all reasonable requests" (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
Four days later he was dead, and system and method began to disappear from the farms of Mount Vernon. It would be more than fifty years before the mansion house, eventually bereft of most outlying farmland, was restored to beauty and order. Meanwhile, time and neglect diminished much of what Washington had longed to improve and preserve.
In 1834 a writer from Fairfax County, signing himself "F," wrote a letter to the editor of the Farmers' Register. He had recently ridden across the farms. "Any, curious to mark the operation of time upon human affairs, would find much for contemplation by riding through the extensive domains of the late General Washington. A more widespread and perfect agricultural ruin could not be imagined; yet the monuments of the great mind that once ruled, are seen throughout. The ruins of capacious barns, and long extended hedges, seem proudly to boast that their master looked to the future" (The Diaries of George Wahington, 1:552).