Monday, October 8, 2018

George Washington: Farmer - The Vale of Sunset

George Washington as Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851

George Washington: Farmer  
Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) 
Ch 18  The Vale of Sunset

Washington looked forward to the end of his presidency as does "the weariest traveler, who sees a resting-place, & is bending his body to lay thereon." "Methought I heard him say, 'Ay.' I am fairly out, & you are fairly in; see which of us is the happiest," wrote John Adams to his wife Abigail. And from Mount Vernon Nelly Custis informed a friend that "grandpapa is very well & much pleased with being once more Farmer Washington..."

The Mount Vernon to which he returned was perhaps in better condition than was that to which he retired at the end of the Revolution, for he had been able each summer to give the estate some personal oversight; nevertheless it was badly run down & there was much to occupy his attention. In April he wrote: "We are in the midst of litter & dirt, occasioned by joiners, masons, painters, & upholsterers, working in the house, all parts of which, as well as the outbuildings, are much out of repair."

Anderson remained with him, but Washington gave personal attention to many matters & exercised a general oversight over everything. Like most good farmers he "began his diurnal course  with the sun," & if his slaves & hirelings were not in place by that time he sent "them messages of sorrow for their indisposition." Having set the wheels of the estate in motion, he breakfasted. "This being over, I mount my horse & ride around my farms, which employs me until it is time for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces.... The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, & tea bring me within the dawn of candlelight; previous to which, if not prevented by company, I resolve that, as soon as the glimmering taper supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing table & acknowledge the letters I have received, but when the lights are brought I feel tired & disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well. The next night comes, & with it the same causes of postponement, & so on.... I have not looked into a book since I came home; nor shall I be able to do it until I have discharged my workmen, probably not before the nights grow longer, when possibly I may be looking in Doomsday Book."

He had his usual troubles with servants & crops, with delinquent tenants & other debtors; he tried Booker's threshing machine, experimented with white Indian peas & several varieties of wheat, including a yellow bearded kind that was supposed to resist the fly, & built two houses, or rather a double house, on property owned in the Federal City--he avoided calling the place "Washington."

A picture of the Farmer out upon his rounds in these last days has been left us by his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis relates that one day when out with a gun he met on the forest road an elderly gentleman on horseback who inquired where he could find the General. The boy told the stranger, who proved to be Colonel Meade, once of Washington's staff, that the General was abroad on the estate & pointed out what direction to take to come upon him. "You will meet, sir, with an old gentleman riding alone in plain drab clothes, a broad-brimmed white hat, a hickory switch in his hand, & carrying an umbrella with a long staff, which is attached to his saddle-bow--that person, sir, is General Washington."

Those were pleasant rides the old Farmer took in the early morning sunshine, with the birds singing about him, the dirt lanes soft under his horse's feet, & in his nostrils the pure air fragrant with  the scent of pines, locust blossoms or wild honeysuckle. When he grew thirsty he would pause for a drink at his favorite gum spring, & as he made his rounds would note the progress of the miller, the coopers, the carpenters, the fishermen, & the hands in the fields, how the corn was coming up or the wheat was ripening, what fences needed to be renewed or gaps in hedges filled, what the increase of his cattle would be, whether the stand of clover or buckwheat was good or not. He was the owner of all this great estate, he was proud of it; it was his home, & he was glad to be back on it once more. For he had long since realized that there are deeper & more satisfying pleasures than winning battles or enjoying the plaudits of multitudes...

Upon his retirement from the presidency our Farmer had told Oliver Wolcott that he probably would never again go twenty miles from his own vine & fig tree, but the troubles with France resulted in a quasi-war & he was once more called from retirement to head an army, most of which was never raised. He accepted the appointment with the understanding that he was not to be called into the field unless his presence should be indispensable, but he found that he must give much of his time to the matter & be often from home, while a quarrel between his friends Knox & Hamilton over second place joined with Republican hostility to war measures to add a touch of bitterness to the work. Happily war was avoided and, though an adjustment of the international difficulties was not reached until 1800, Washington was able to spend most of the last months of his life at Mount Vernon comparatively undisturbed.

Yet things were not as once they were. Mrs. Washington had aged greatly & was now a semi-invalid often confined to her bed. The Farmer himself came of short-lived stock & realized that his pilgrimage would not be greatly prolonged. Twice during the year he was seriously ill, & in September was laid up for more than a week. His brother Charles died & in acknowledging the sad news he wrote:

"I was the first, & am, now, the last of my father's children by the second marriage, who remain.

"When I shall be called upon to follow them is known only to the Giver of Life. When the summons comes, I shall endeavor to obey it with good grace..."

Nor did the Farmer cease to labor or to lay plans for the future. He entered into negotiations for the purchase of more land to round out Mount Vernon & surveyed some tracts that he owned. On the tenth of December he inclosed with a letter to Anderson a long set of "Instructions for my manager" which were to be "most strictly & pointedly attended to & executed." He had rented one of the farms to Lawrence Lewis, also the mill & distillery, & was desirous of renting the fishery in order to have less work & fewer hands to attend to; in fact, "an entire new scene" was to be enacted. The instructions were exceedingly voluminous, consisting of thirty closely written folio pages, & they contain plans for the rotation of crops for several years, as well as specific directions regarding fencing, pasturage, composts, feeding stock, & a great variety of other subjects. In them one can find our Farmer's final opinions on certain phases of agriculture. To draw them up must have cost him days of hard labor & that he found the task wearing is indicated by the fact that in two places he uses the dates 1782 & 1783 when he obviously meant 1802 & 1803.

There was no hunting now nor any of those other active outdoor sports in which he had once delighted & excelled, while "Alas! our dancing days are no more." Happily he was able to ride & labor to the last, yet more & more of his time had to be spent quietly, much of it, we may well believe, upon the splendid broad veranda of his home...

Here, with bared heads, let us take leave of him--a farmer, but "the greatest of good men & the best of great men."