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Forum LockedGeorge Washington's final days

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    Posted: 26-Dec-2007 at 17:53

George Washington: His Final Days

George Washington had fought and won a war, served two terms as the new nation's first president, and kept that nation on an even keel. After all that, could he be satisfied with retirement on his country estate?

By Nicat Mustafazade

Festive crowds had greeted George Washington on many occasions when he traveled in and out of the capital city. Yet on this crisp, clear March morning, he and his wife Martha rode almost unnoticed as their carriage rattled across the brick and cobblestone streets of Philadelphia. John Adams was president now, and the Washingtons were leaving for Mount Vernon, their home in Virginia.

George Washington was delighted to be leaving public office. He was 65 years old and anxious to spend the remainder of his life away from the stress and responsibilities of the presidency. He believed he was near the end of his life; few people at that time lived past their mid-sixties, and many men in Washington's family had died at a relatively young age--four of his brothers and his father had died while in their thirties or forties.

Following Adams' inauguration on March 4, 1797, Washington had remained in the President's Mansion for another five days, while his successor stayed at a local boarding house. He helped Martha pack 97 boxes and 14 trunks, and twice called on Adams. The Washingtons said goodbye to old acquaintances and enjoyed a last-minute shopping spree just before departing the city. Martha bought shoes and furniture, and George purchased wine, nuts, medicine, a smoking jacket, and a new pair of glasses.

When the couple arrived at Mount Vernon, Washington quickly settled into the routine he had always practiced while living there. Rising before the sun, he read or tended to his correspondence until about 7:30 a.m., when he emerged from his library for a light breakfast. He then rode about the plantation, talked to his farm manager and overseers, and inspected operations. He returned to the mansion in the afternoon for the day's second, and largest, meal, one that frequently lasted up to two hours. Before nightfall, Washington often toured the gardens and visited the stables and carriage house near the mansion or returned to his library. In the evening he rejoined the family for a light meal, often cheese, bread, fruit, and a glass of wine, and usually retired before 10:00 p.m.

Colleagues often spoke of Washington's "retirement," a term that he also used on occasion. In reality, Washington had not retired; he had merely left public life. Now he managed his personal business interests, which included Mount Vernon's labor force of more than 300 slaves. He enjoyed this lifestyle and sometimes spoke of these pursuits as his "occupation and amusement."

Washington thought of himself as a planter, although in eighteenth-century Virginia that term described those who earned their livelihood from growing tobacco. According to that definition, Washington was not a planter. He had nearly phased out tobacco production at Mount Vernon 30 years earlier, substituting grains, flax, and hemp.

Furthermore, much of Washington's attention was directed toward non-agricultural concerns, and the majority of Mount Vernon's workers never went near a hoe or plow. Some were trained as skilled artisans and labored on the estate as blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons. Others were assigned to one of the property's five stills that produced nearly 12,000 gallons of corn whiskey annually. Some worked in the sawmill, gristmill, and on one of Washington's two fishing vessels that sailed the Potomac River. Numerous women labored as domestics or made clothing.

Through a series of complicated land deals that included both sales and exchanges of western property, Washington realized nearly $50,000 during the last five years of his life (the equivalent of approximately $750,000 in today's currency). In July 1799, he assessed the thousands of acres that he owned at $488,000. Nevertheless, as shrewd and successful a businessman as he was, Washington was aware of the vicissitudes and uncertainties of business. He worried about his and Martha's economic security, so he decided to lease most of Mount Vernon's land, which would leave him with a steady income. He had originally launched the search for tenants in 1793, but every promising lead had come to nothing.

Washington had resolved to lease the property only if he found "peaceable, industrious, and skilled" tenants who would employ free African-American laborers, for he wanted to free his slaves and permit them to live and work as hired hands at Mount Vernon. Prior to the War of Independence, Washington never contemplated such an action, but by 1783 he had become uncomfortable in his role as a slave owner.

Although Washington was happy in retirement, he had not been at Mount Vernon long before he complained that he lacked time to meet his responsibilities. Dealing with his correspondence was especially time-consuming. He was inundated with unsolicited letters, the majority of which he tried to answer, averaging about one letter every day. Many were lengthy missives, containing carefully crafted sentences to ensure the style was correct and that he had expressed himself with clarity. Business trips also occupied his time. He undertook journeys to inspect nearby land that he had recently bought. Business frequently took him to Alexandria, sometimes for meetings of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Alexandria. Less often, Washington traveled to Georgetown for meetings of the Board of Directors of the Potomac Company (formed in 1784 to develop a canal that would link the trans-Appalachian frontier to the Chesapeake Bay). He made several trips to the Federal City--many were already calling it Washington--to look into investment opportunities.

Washington's time was also taken up by the incessant parade of visitors who came to Mount Vernon. Hundreds of wayfarers stayed overnight during the 30 months of Washington's retirement. So many came that once Washington noted in his diary, "I am alone at present . . . . Unless someone pops in, unexpectedly--Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us--that is to set down to dinner by ourselves."

Mount Vernon took on the air of a hotel. The stream of visitors included foreign dignitaries and old acquaintances from the war years, or their children or siblings. Even one of Washington's former Continental army bodyguards dropped in. Business associates, Virginia politicians, and relatives called on him. Some guests were total strangers and, on occasion, Washington did not even know the name of the person he was hosting. Many affluent Americans sent their sons to Mount Vernon for the same reason that subsequent generations sent their children to Europe. A visit to Mount Vernon was regarded as the capstone of a young man's education, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the presence of the greatest American luminary and to see the most famous residence in the land. The demands on his time were so great that during his first year at home, Washington persuaded Lawrence Lewis, the son of his sister Betty, to move to Mount Vernon in order to "ease me of the trouble of entertaining company." As surrogate host, Lawrence led guided tours, dined with visitors, and chatted with the company in the evening.

 

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gcle2003 View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-Dec-2007 at 11:07
Is there some reason this is in linguistics?
 
If it's just a mistake I'll move it to early modern.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Red4tribe Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Nov-2008 at 01:33
Interesting, but it forgets to mention that he came out of retirement one more time in 1798, to take command of the Army when it looked like war with France was inevitable.
Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.

George Washington - March 15, 1783

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