Vol. XXX No. 10 — October 1952

Washington; The Man

This month and in November, lodges everywhere will celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of Washington’s initiation in “The lodge at Fredericksburgh, Virginia,” November 4, 1752.

This Bulletin is a condensation of the first part of Washington’s Home and Fraternal Life by Carl H. Claudy, written for and published by the United States Bicentennial Commission, in 1932.

George Washington was born on the Bridges Creek, Virginia, estate on February 11 old style (22 new style), 1732. The plantation was, later, called Wakefield.

Washington’s schooling was a haphazard affair and of it there is little definite information. He possibly attended a field school kept by one Hobby, a sexton, before his father died, and for some months after that event lived with Augustine at Wakefield and attended the school of Henry Williams, who is credited with developing George’s inclination toward mathematics. When he went to live with his mother his schooling was perhaps in Fredericksburgh under the rector there, Rev. James Marye, on and off, until probably 1747. He may have received but quickly forgot, a smattering of Latin, continued his interest in mathematics, left school with a power of literary expression which he never lost, and a clear chirography. His largest education was outside. Vigorous outdoor activity combined with great strength prepared his body for the demands of the later strenuous life and made him a superb horseman. His visits to the homes of his elder brothers brought him into contact with colonial polite society, taught him manners, and developed his character, while also starting him on his career.

On the traditional love affairs of Washington — of the “Lowland Beauty,” of his interest in Sally Cary, the wife of George William Fairfax, of his visit to Mary Phillipse in New York (there is no evidence of either engagement or proposal), and the rest — it is not essential to dwell. He met his future wife, Martha Dandridge, widow of Daniel Parke Custis, early in 1758. She was a few months older than Washington. The marriage took place on January 6, 1759, as soon as he had resigned his military commission. It is not known whether the ceremony took place at her house or at the church. His attitude toward life at that time is indicated by a letter written soon after this happy event to an English correspondent of his own name whom be supposed to be a distant relative: “I am now I believe fixed at this seat 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 loved his friends and was as happy in entertaining them as in visiting them. His diaries and his letters prove his interest in and his dependence upon his chosen comrades; if indeed a man is known by the company he keeps, then is Washington known as the peer of his day and age, for his friends were the leaders in the political, social, and economic life ofhis time.

His near neighbors, the Ramsays, the Johnsons, the Fairfaxes, the McCartys, the Diggeses across the Potomac, Dr. Craik, the George Masons, his wife’s relatives, the Bassets of York Peninsula, and many others were often at Mount Vernon and Washington and his wife visited them to dine or sup or spend the night. Craik, Mercer, Wagener, and other comrades of early days in the border wars were often around his fireside, living over the brave days of youth and daring, adventure and danger.

Few if any of his immediate neighbors held the place in Washington’s heart which was occupied by George Mason, of Gunston Hall. The two men were singularly alike in certain ways; both were enthusiastic planters, both proprietors of great estates, both intensely interested in public affairs. The famous author of the Virginia Bill of Rights had five hundred people on his plantation and Gunston Hall vied with Mount Vernon in both beauty and hospitality. Hence it was but natural that the social intercourse between the two “great houses” should be so constant in the antebellum days, or that we find Washington so often at Gunston, and Mason so often at Mount Vernon. After the Revolution they differed politically and the intimacy was evidently much lessened.

If Washington lived in a style which in these days might he considered above the average, it was far more for his family and his guests than for himself. We have his own words for his love of simplicity. He wrote: “My manner of living is plain and I do not mean to be put out of it: a glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to take of them are always welcome. Those who expect more will be disappointed.”

Repeatedly he referred to “the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree.” He called Mount Vernon “a small villa” and again “my cottage.” He liked “the simplicity of rural life.”

Washington lived in a state befitting the man. It was luxurious, but luxury was the fashion of the times. Especially did he wish his wife to enjoy those comforts and luxuries to which his position and his means entitled her. Mrs. Washington never had reason to complain of her wardrobe. She had silks and satins of the finest. When occasion required Washington traveled on horseback, but when time was available he used a coach and four, and his outriders dressed in livery. His home was furnished with the best and his entertainments, if not actually lavish, were at least more than ample. The best was none too good for all those he loved, as befitted a wealthy man, the President of the nation, the general of its armies, beloved by his countrymen.

The Reverend Jedidiah Morse, the geographer, visited Mount Vernon in 1789, and left this delightful sketch of the General’s home:

He rises, in winter as well as summer, at the dawn of day; and generally reads or writes some time before breakfast. He breakfasts about seven o’clock on three small Indian hoe-cakes and as many dishes of tea. He rides immediately to his different farms, and remains with his labourers until a little past two o’clock, when he retires and dresses. At three he dines. . . . Whether there be company or not, the table is always prepared, by its elegance and exuberance, for their reception; and the General remains at it for an hour after dinner, in familiar conversation and convivial hilarity. It is then that every one present is called upon to give some absent friend as a toast; the name not infrequently awakens a pleasing remembrance of past events, and gives a new turn to the animated colloquy. General Washington is more cheerful than he was in the army. Although his temper is rather of a serious cast, and his countenance commonly carries the impression of thoughtfulness, yet he perfectly relishes a pleasant story, an unaffected sally of wit, or a burlesque description which surprises by its suddenness and incongruity with the ordinary appearance of the object described. After this social and innocent relaxation, he applies himself to business, and about nine o’clock retires to rest. This is the routine, and this the hour he observes, when no one but his family is present; at other times he attends politely upon his company until they wish to withdraw.

Washington was very fond of dancing! This grave man, so filled with cares of state, so self-sacrificing of all that he held dearest in life - home, plantation, friends, association with a loved wife — enjoyed to the full all varieties of the social intercourse of his age. Colonial days were a mixture of social formality and unceremonious hospitality. Dancing was a social grace in which both men and women were schooled as an essential part of a well-rounded education. The stately minuet and the jolly Virginia reel were both performed according to ceremonial forms, and beautiful must both have been in the colonial silken knee breeches, ruffled shirts and powdered wigs of the men, the long full skirts and low cut evening gowns of the women.

Washington gave up dancing with regret. In 1799 he wrote to the committee on arrangements of the balls to be held by the Washington Society of Alexandria:

Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies of Alexandria this winter, and thank you for this mark of your attention. But, alas! our dancing days are no more. We wish, however, all those who have a relish for so agreeable and innocent an amusement all the pleasure the season will afford them.

Washington’s home life was interrupted time after time; but when he could enjoy Mount Vernon, his home life was not all work. He built, he farmed, he improved and conserved his holdings, but he also lived the life of a gentleman of the period and hunted and fished and rode to hounds.

Mount Vernon had miles of water front, and the Potomac was — and still is — filled with fish. Washington was extremely fond of fishing but he regarded his water rights as more than mere adjuncts to sport. The spring run of shad and herring was an important source of food and wealth for the owner of Mount Vernon.

He knew the woods within miles of his home from boyhood days and frequently hunted the abundant game of the Virginia hills and vales: Virginia deer, hares, squirrels, gray fox, and ’possum, many species of birds and of course the ruffed grouse, the wild turkey, and quail.

His diaries show that he loved fox hunting more than any other sport, during the season often coursing three or four times a week. It was the sport of the community; he and his neighbors kept kennels and the bay of the hound was often heard in the land.

Washington loved the earth; he was a planter from inclination as well as from necessity. To watch the brown mould being plowed, to see his crops sprout and grow, to count them as harvested, satisfied an inner spiritual need of the man whose whole life was a succession of planting and sowing and reaping; planting effort, sowing ideas, and reaping independence and good government.

A husbandman as well as a farmer, livestock was a hobby with Washington. The several estuaries which indented his estate made marshes suitable for hogs and his average annual hog kill mounted to two hundred and fifty head, largely used in feeding his slaves and servants, although the best of the ham and bacon would he for the home table and the guests.

George Washington and Mrs. Washington missed the gift of children of their own. Washington’s paternal affections were lavished upon his wife’s children, Martha and John Custis, and the grandchildren (son and daughters of John Custis), Eliza, Martha, Eleanor, and George Washington Parke Custis.

Martha Washington’s two children grew up at Mount Vernon, to which beautiful home George Washington took his new wife and her babies in 1759. Both Martha and John Custis were dearly loved by the General; the shouts and the laughter, the play and the merriment which youth brought to Mount Vernon made it the sweeter in the eyes of the owner.

Washington was away from Mount Vernon for almost seventeen of the forty-one years of his married life, though during the last six years of his presidency he was able to spend much of his time there. Mrs. Washington was with him whenever possible during these periods of public service. During the war army headquarters were perhaps a poor excuse for a home; but except for the Yorktown campaign Washington’s army engaged in no decisive operations after the summer of 1778; and the first winter before Boston was spent by him in the commodious quarters of the Cragie (Longfellow) House at Cambridge, and the winter of 1781-82 at Philadelphia. Mrs. Washington joined him sooner or later each winter, and was with him continuously after the Yorktown campaign until just before the final scene of the occupation of New York City, so that even during the stress and misery of the war home life was not entirely denied to him.

Washington’s interest in the church was deep and sincere. He not only attended divine services frequently both at home and abroad, but he worked for the church. The church building at Pohick (Truro) a beautiful structure still standing and in use, was the result of the labors of Washington and Mason. George Washington was a member of the vestry of the Truro for eleven years. That body held thirty-one meetings during that interval of which Washington attended twenty-three. He was absent only because of sickness, attendance at the General Assembly, or distance beyond reach.

Washington’s home life shows him as a lover of the fireside; a domestic-minded householder; a man careful of his property, but generous with his servants; a devoted husband; a father whose loving kindness was no less that the relationship was not of blood; a man who loved the outdoors, the earth, the growing grain, the wild game; a hospitable man who offered the best he had in happiness that there were many who enjoyed breaking bread with him; a man to whom church and divine worship were a part of life. His home was refuge and a haven of peace and joy; he left it with regret, he returned to it as to a heaven on earth. No glimpses of the great warrior and statesman across the years are more intimate, none more charming, than those of Washington the husband, the devoted father of children not his own, the host, the home lover.

George Washington entered the Celestial lodge Above at twenty minutes past ten o’clock P.M. on Saturday December 14, 1799, in his sixty-eighth year.

He was buried with full Masonic honors, Alexandria Lodge No. 22 officiating, Brooke Lodge No. 47 of Alexandria assisting.

Of the six pall bearers, Col. Charles Simms, Col. Dennis Ramsey, Col. William Payne, Col. George Gilpin, Col. Philip Marsteller, and Col. Charles Little, all officers who had served in the Revolution, all were Masons and members of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, except Col. Marsteller, whose son, Phillip G., was a member and attended the funeral.

The sermon at the tomb was preached by Reverend Thomas Davis, of Christ Church — Washington’s own church — Alexandria — and the Masonic services were conducted by Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, worshipful master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, and the Reverend James Muir, D.D., chaplain of the lodge. Dr. Dick retired from the East of the lodge when it was rechartered, to allow Washington to be named first in the Charter, thus becoming the first master, remained again a year out of the East when Washington was unanimously reelected and again became master after Washington became a past master. To Dr. Dick fell the solemn duty of interring the distinguished dead with the Lambskin Apron of the fraternity and its Sprig of Acacia of immortal hope.

The Masonic Service Association of North America