Mount Vernon

Cazenove Gardner Lee, Jr.

Note: The following is taken from Cazenove Gardner Lee, Jr.’s Lee Chronicle: Studies of the Early Generations of the Lees of Virginia, edited by Dorothy Mills Parker (New York, 1957; pp. 262–69). The chapter’s footnotes have been omitted.

THE chronicle of the Lees could not be told without mention of the Washington family, whose connection with the Mount Vernon property followed that of the Lees, who were second only to the Washingtons in their long close association with the place.

On March 23, 1663, the General Court of Virginia renewed a patent granted several years earlier by Sir William Berkeley “unto Colo. Richard Lee Esqr, Councillor of State,” for four thousand acres of land in three parcels, one of which, containing one thousand acres, comprised the tract on which Mount Vernon is now so pleasantly situated. This property was left by Colonel Lee to his five younger children and is again mentioned in the will of his older son and heir-at-law, Richard Lee II, into whose possession it appears to have passed: “I give to my daughter Anne Fitzhugh all my right, title and claim to a tract of land of 4000 acres in Stafford County patented by my honoured father deceased.” (In 1663 Mount Vernon was in Westmoreland; in 1714, the date of Richard II’s will, it was in Stafford, while today it is in Fairfax County.)

In the meantime, after the death of the first Richard Lee, Nicholas Spencer and John Washington, Westmoreland’s two burgesses, had had the property surveyed. These men possessed great influence in their county and the survey naturally resulted in litigation which went on for a number of years. In the midst of this the Northern Neck Proprietary was established in 1670, a most pernicious piece of folly on the part of Charles II, of which his two worthless favorites, Lords Arlington and Culpeper, were the beneficiaries. By this time, however, Richard Lee II was sufficiently strong in the Council to prevent the issuing of a new patent to the property in the name of Spencer and Washington, but this state of affairs was not to continue, for in 1671 Spencer was himself elevated to the Council. His appointment greatly increased his prestige, and in 1675 he was able to secure a patent from the Proprietors of the Northern Neck to the property in question. With this as a trump card he succeeded in securing a Virginia patent in 1677 after the Governor, Sir William Berkeley, returned to England. This contest over the Mount Vernon lands, between the Lees on one side and Spencer and Washington on the other, was practically decided in 1680 by the appointment of Culpeper, a relative of Spencer as well as an arrant rascal, as Governor of Virginia. Add to this Lee’s vigorous opposition to the King’s bestowal of the Proprietorship on Culpeper and Arlington, and it becomes clear why the Lees interests were frozen out. Even so, Spencer for a long time seems to have had but little confidence in the validity of his title to these lands, and Richard Lee II evidently cherished some hope to his own claim as late as 1714, when he bequeathed his “right, title and claim” to his daughter.

John Washington died in January, 1677, and Spencer in 1689. Washington left his interest in this estate to his son Lawrence (1661–1698) who was married in 1690 to Mildred, the daughter of Augustine Warner of Gloucester. Lawrence in turn devised his share of the property to his daughter Mildred, who later married Roger Gregory and in 1726 deeded her part in the estate to her brother, Augustine Washington (1674–1743), father of George. Sometime during the year 1794 Augustine moved with his family from Wakefield, the Washington home in Westmoreland, to the Mount Vernon property, when the future General was nearly three years old. Here they seem to have resided for about five years, until their house was destroyed by fire. They then moved to the Ferry Farm opposite Fredericksburg, where Augustine Washington died in 1743, leaving the Mount Vernon estate to his son Lawrence.

This son, born in 1716, was educated in England, and after returning to Virginia took part in the ill-fated expedition underr Admiral Vernon to Cartagena, from which he returned in 1742 with his health permanently impaired. He was married on the 19th of July, 1743, to Anne Fairfax, eldest daughter of Colonel William Fairfax of Belvoir. They settled on the Mount Vernon property and built the central portion of the present mansion, consequently the oldest part of the house, and gave the place its name, after the admiral under whom Lawrence had served.

It seems probable that George Washington as a boy made his home there with them for a while. In 1748, when he was sixteen, he made his first journey beyond the Blue Ridge and kept his first journal, which records his return to Mount Vernon, though it does not expressly state that he started from there. Soon after this he made his first survey, of a cow pasture along the Potomac. His plot of this survey is a fine piece of work and may be seen in the Library of Congress, where it is labeled in his hand “A Plan of Alexandria and Belhaven.” His next journal records his trip to Barbados with his brother Lawrence, whose health was failing. There George suffered smallpox. This was his only visit to a foreign country. He returned alone to Virginia and again went to Mount Vernon, where he appears to have remained until after Lawrence’s death the following year, when Governor Dinwiddie sent him to the Ohio to deliver the remonstrance to the French commander.

And now once more the Lees come into the story. Lawrence Washington died on the 26th of July, 1752, and in September the last of his children followed him to the grave. His wife returned to Belvoir, and in December became the second wife of George Lee of Mount Pleasant. As Mount Vernon had been willed to her for life, after which it was to go to George Washington, it thus in a sense returned to the Lee family on the day of heer second marriage. However, Washington was able to secure immediate possession of it through an agreement with George Lee which called for an annual rental of fifteen thousand pounds of tobacco or cash settlement of twelve shillings six pence for every hundredweight of tobacco. He prevailed upon his younger brother, John Augustine, to come and live there with him and manage the estate while he took part in the Braddock campaign of 1756. This arrangement did not last long, for John Augustine soon left to marry Hannah Bushrod, and settled at Busfield on the Nomini. Forty-three years later, in the summer of 1790, Washington honored the memory of this beloved brother, then long deceased, by bequeathing Mount Vernon to his son in his last will and testament:

To my nephew, Bushrod Washington, and his heirs (partly in consideration of an intimation to his deceased father, while we were bachelors and he had kindly undertaken to superintend my estate, during my military . . . that if I should fall therein Mount Vernon should become his property) I give and bequeath all that part which is comprehended within the following limits, etc.

This will contains much that is of interest. It begins without a profession of faith, it was prepared without legal assistance, and his signature has no witnesses. He signed his name at the bottom of each of the twenty-nine pages save one, but omitted the final “nine” in writing the date, making it appear that it was prepared in 1790 instead of 1799. In it he provided for the arbitration of disputes and ordered the manumission of his slaves after his wife’s death, since, due to the intermarriage between her own and his, it was not possible to do so earlier. To his wife and her heirs forever he left the household effects; the more important of these, such as the silver plate and the Cincinnati china, passed to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, and were removed to his home at Arlington. It is said that when Judge Bushrod Washington took possession of Mount Vernon in 1802, following her death, the house contained but one article, a portrait of Lawrence Washington, which no one seemed to want.

The regime of Judge Washington, who was a son of John Augustine, lasted until his death in 1829, and during this period the social life of the place was at a low ebb, as his position on the Supreme Court necessitated his living elsewhere. However, during this time there were two incidents worth recording. The first occurred on August 24, 1814, when a British fleet sailed by on its way to sack Alexandria and burn the public buildings in Washington. It had been feared that Mount Vernon would also be destroyed, but to the amazement of its occupants the enemy instead fired a salute. The other event was of a happier character; it was the visit of the venerable Lafayette in October, 1824, to the home and tomb of his old chief.

Bushrod Washington died without issue and the property descended to his nephew, Colonel J. Augustine Washington (1789–1832). He was the son of Corbin Washington and Hannah, a duaghter of Richard Henry Lee. The latter’s son, Thomas, had married Corbin’s sister, Mildred. Family ties were close in those days. Cololnel Washington in turn had a son bearing his name, who was the last private owner of Mount Vernon. Jus as in the beginning the property had been identified with the Lees, so it was in the latter days, for the last two generations of Washingtons to live there were descendants of Richard Henry Lee, and through their Corbin line related to every member of the Lee family who could claim descent from Mrs. Richard Lee II.

There is evidence to show that the Lees kept up their contacts with this place that was dear to them, certainly in George Washington’s time. His diaries disclose the fact that nearly fifty members of the Lee family enjoyed his hospitality there over a period of time. The edition of his journals published in 1925 by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association includes all his extant diaries. While they throw some new light on his character and add to our knowledge of some of the old Virginia families, the casual reader will be disappointed if he expects to find heretofore unknown details of the Braddock campaign, the War of Independence, or his two terms as president. Furthermore, all the entries are distressingly brief. But the four volumes contain a voluminous index and footnotes, and whle there is much dry detail concerning the state of the crops, weather conditions, etc., the General did carefully list the names of all visitors, and the time of their arrival and departure.

Mount Vernon seems to have been the scene of many successful courtships. We note that Charles Lee of Alexandria was apt to have business with the General at a time when Nancy Lee was a guest there, and we find that William Hodgson accompanied Richard Bland Lee and his charming ward, Miss Portia Lee, when they dined with the host of Mount Vernon, and that Light Horse Harry Lee was used by his sister Mary as a chaperon for herself and Philip R. Fendall while guest there.

The first mention of a member of the Lee family in the diaries occurs on July 25, 1767, when Washington planted some turnip seed sent him by a “Colo Lee.” This is Colonel Henry Lee of Leesylvania, who with his lady visited Mount Vernon on September 24, 1768. This is their only visit recorded in the diary, though Washington stopped at their home on three different occasions (1769, 1771, and 1772) on his way to represent his country in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg.

The first visitors of the Lee family to be recorded in the diary were William and Arthur Lee, who arrived on July 6, 1768. Arthur remained two nights and returned to dinner on teh 13th in the company of Colonel Fairfax of Belvoir, where he evidently was staying. William left after one night and there is no record of any further visits on his part, though Arthur was a frequent visitor during 1785–88 and once dined with President Washington in New York when the seat of government was in that city.

A Colonel Richard Lee is mentioned several times. This was undoubtedly Richard Henry Lee, since he was the only Richard Lee enjoying that title in his generation. He, with Thomas Ludwell Lee, spent the night of May 3, 1775, on his way to the Continental Congress. On June 15 of this same year Washington was appointed to the supreme command of the army, but no mention is made of this in his journal.

So far as the Lee family is concerned, the honor of being the most frequent visitor to Mount Vernon belongs to Philip R. Fendall of Alexandria, who stopped there once in 1770 when he was living in Charles County, Maryland, and on eighteen other occasions between the years 1785 and 1786. This gentleman, a grandson of Philip Lee of Maryland, showed a great partiality for his own kin, for he was the husband, successively, of three Lee women. On September 6, 1786, Washington wrote that “Mr. and Mrs. Fendall came in on thier [way to] Esquire Lee’s of Maryland (who is very ill) and stayed all night.” Squire Richard Lee, of Blenheim in Maryland, who was Fendall’s uncle as well as his current father-in-law, survived this illness and lived for three more years. The diary continues: “September 7th. Mr. and Mrs. Fendall crossed the ferry early.” And on September 9th: “Mr. and Mrs. Fendall arrived (about 6 P.M.).”

On January 28, 1787, there is this entry: “Colo Henry Lee [Light Horse Harry], his Lady, Miss Lee and Mr. Fendall came here to dinner, the last of whom went away afterwards (crossing the river for Maryland).” The diary tells us that Mr. Fendall returned on the 31st, and that the party left the following morning. The “Miss Lee” was probably Light Horse Harry’s sister, Mary, who later became Fendall’s third wife.

Light Horse Harry visited Mount Vernon a total of fourteen times, beginning as a young man on the 16th of April, 1775, when the British were preparing to march on Lexington and Paul Revere was grooming his steed for his famous ride. These visits were frequent during the period between 1786–89 and 1797–99. Another frequent visitor was Charles Lee, Washington’s Attorney General. He was there on seventeen occasions during 1785–88 and 1797–99, though never for more than one night. Richard Bland Lee visited the place five times, usually in the company of other members of the family. Ludwell Lee paid several visits there and on one occasion entertained the General and his wife at his home on Shuter’s Hill near Alexandria. He was the last member of the Lee family to dine at Mount Vernon during the General’s lifetime.

Frequent mention is made in the diaries of Thomas Sim Lee, wartime governor of Maryland, who was associated with Washington in the Potomac Company, a project for improving the navigation of the river of that name and ultimately connecting it by a canal with the Ohio. Governor Lee visited Mount Vernon as early as 1768. Theodorick Lee was another visitor on more than one occasion, and also mentioned, in the entry for March 30, 1773, was Lancelot Lee, son of George Lee and Anne Fairfax. Thomas Ludwell Lee and his son Aylett stopped there on the 14th of September, 1786.

William Hodgson of Alexandria, who married Portia Lee and did some of his courting at Mount Vernon, as we have seen, first appears in the diary for June, 1788. Washington had trouble with this gentleman’s name, and called his Hodgson, Hodgden, and finally, after his marriage, Hodgson. On February 25, 1774, Hancock Lee, third of the name, dined there. He was employed at the time as a surveyor for the Ohio Company and was about to return to Kentucky, where he is remembered in connection with the early explorations in the vicinity of the present city of Louisville.

Philip Richard Francis Lee of the Maryland house visited Mount Vernon on November 13, 1774, to invite Washington to take command of the Prince William Independent Company, which he agreed to do. This Lee was afterward a captain in the Third Virginia Regiment and was wounded at the Brandywine. Edmund Jennings Lee is mentioned as a visitor on three occasions and his wife on one. He was honored with a written invitation to dinner on September 3, 1798; he was unable to attend but his brother Charles was among those present on that night.

Thomas Lee Shippen has left the impression of a visit there in the company of his uncle, Arthur Lee, on their famous tour of Virginia in 1790. This was Arthur’s last visit, and as it occurred while Washington was President there is no record of it in the diaries. Shippen wrote:

Mount Vernon, 16 Sept., 1790
My dear Father and Friend:

This is to be sure a delightful place. Nothing seems wanting to render it the fit residence of its owner, worthy to employ and amuse the leisure of so great a amn as our President. . . . I have been hre two days, and have seen most of the improvements which do honour at once to the taste and industry of our Washington. I have been treated as usual with every most distinguished mark of kindness and attention. Hospitality indeed seems to have spread over the whole place its happiest, kindest influence. The President exercises it in a superlative degree, from the greatest of its duties to the most trifling minutiae, and Mrs. Washington is the very essence of kindness. Her souls seems to overflow with it like the most abundant fountain and her happiness is in exact proportion to the number of objects upon which she can dispense her benefits. I have some difficulty in leaving them so soon.

It is easy to see that young Shippen was experiencing a thrill, and that the Washingtons were trying to repay the many kind attentions they had received as guests of the Shippens in Philadelphia.