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Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon, 1851, Junius Brutus Stearns.
A Farmer’s Records And Other Papers

Washington was the most methodical man that ever lived. He had a place for everything and insisted that everything should be kept in its place. There was nothing haphazard about his methods of business. He kept exact accounts of financial dealings.

His habit of setting things down on paper was one that developed early. He kept a journal of his sur- veying experiences beyond the Blue Ridge in 1748, another of his trip to Barbadoes with his brother Lawrence in 1751-52, another of his trip to Fort Le Boeuf to warn out the French, and yet another of his Fort Necessity campaign. The words are often misspelled, many expressions are ungrammatical, but the handwriting is good and the judgments expressed, even those set down when he was only sixteen, are the mature judgments of a man.

A year after his marriage he began a formal diary, which he continued until June 19, 1775, the time of his appointment to command the army of the Revolution. He called it his Diary and later Where, & how my time is Spent. In it he entered the happenings of the day, his agricultural and other experiments, a record of his guests and also a detailed account of the weather.

His attention to this last matter was most particular. Often when away from home he would have a record kept and on his return would incorporate it into his book. Exactly what advantages he expected to derive therefrom are not apparent, though I presume that he hoped to draw conclusions as to the best time for planting crops. In reading it I was many times reminded of a Cleveland octogenarian who for fifty-seven years kept a record twice a day of the thermometer and barometer. Near the end of his life he brought the big ledgers to the Western Reserve Historical Society, and I happened to be present on the occasion. “You have studied the subject for a long time,” I said to him. “Are there any conclusions you have been able to reach as a result of your investigation?” He thought a minute and passed a wrinkled hand across a wrinkled brow. “Nothing but this,” he made answer, “that Cleveland weather is only constant in its inconstancy.”

We would gladly exchange some of these meteorological details for further information about Washington’s own personal doings and feelings. Of the latter the diaries reveal little. Washington was an objective man, above all in his papers. He sets down what happens and says little about causes, motives or mental impressions. When on his way to Yorktown to capture Cornwallis he visited his home for the first time in six weary years, yet merely recorded: “I reached my own Seat at Mount Vernon (distant 120 Miles from the Hd. of Elk) where I staid till the 12th.” Not a word of the emotions which that visit must have roused!

For almost six years after 1775 there is a gap in the diary, though for some months of 1780 he sets down the weather. On May 1, 1781, he begins a new record, which he calls a Journal, and he expresses regret that he has not had time to keep one all the time. The subjects now considered are almost wholly military and the entries reveal a different man from that of 1775. The grammar is better, the vocabulary larger, the tone more elevated, the man himself is bigger and broader with an infinitely wider view-point.

From November 5, 1781, for more than three years there is another blank, except for the journal of his trip to his western lands already referred to. But on January 1, 1785, he begins a new Diary and thenceforward continues it, with short intermissions, until the day of his last ride over his estate.

A few of the diaries and journals have been lost, but most are still in existence. Some are in the Congressional Library and there also is the Toner transcript of these records. The transcript makes thirtyseven large volumes. The diary is one of the main sources from which the material for this book is drawn.

The original of the record of events for 1760 is a small book, perhaps eight or ten inches long by four inches wide and much yellowed by age. Part of the first entry stands thus: “January 1, Tuesday “Visited my Plantations and received an Instance of Mr. French’s great Love of Money in disappointing me of some Pork because the price had risen to 22.6 after he had engaged to let me have it at 20 s.”

On his return from his winter ride he found Mrs. Washington “broke out with the Meazles.” Next day he states with evident disgust that he has taken the pork on French’s own terms.

The weather record for 1760 was kept on blank pages of The Virginia Almanac, a compendium that contains directions for making “Indico,” for curing bloody flux, for making “Physick as pleasant as a Dish of Chocolate,” for making a striking sun-dial, also “A Receipt to keep one’s self warm a whole Winter with a single Billet of Wood.” To do this last “Take a Billet of Wood of a competent Size, fling it out of the Garret-Window into the Yard, run down Stairs as hard as ever you can drive; and when you have got it, run up again with it at the same Measure of Speed; and thus keep throwing down, and fetching up, till the Exercise shall have sufficiently heated you. This renew as often as Occasion shall require. Probatum est.”

This receipt would seem worth preserving in this day of dear fuel. As Washington had great abundance of wood and plenty of negroes to cut it, he probably did not try the experiment—at least such a conclusion is what writers on historical method would call “a safe inference.”

There is in the almanac a rhyme ridiculing physicians and above the March calendar are printed the touching verses:
“Thus of all Joy and happiness bereft, 
 And with the Charge of Ten poor Children left: 
 A greater Grief no Woman sure can know, 
 Who,—with Ten Children—who will have me 

Also there are some other verses, very broad and “not quite the proper thing,” as Kipling has it. But it must not be inferred that Washington approved of them.

Washington also kept cash memorandum books, general account books, mill books and a special book in which he recorded his accounts with the estate of the Custis children. These old books, written in his neat legible hand, are not only one of our chief sources of information concerning his agricultural and financial affairs, but contain many sidelights upon historical events. It is extremely interesting, for example, to discover in one of the account books that in 1775 at Mount Vernon he lent General Charles Lee—of Monmouth fame—£15, and “to Ditto lent him on the Road from Phila to Cambridge ture in their localities. These letters were the result of inquiries made of Washington by Young in 1791. In order to obtain the facts desired Washington sent out a circular letter to some of the most intelligent farmers in the Middle States, and the replies form perhaps our best source of information regarding agricultural conditions in that period.

Because of this service and of his general interest in agricultural matters Washington was elected a foreign honorary member of the English Board of Agriculture and received a diploma, which is still preserved among his papers.

Some of Washington’s other agricultural papers have been printed in one form and another, but a great number, and some the most interesting, can still be consulted only in manuscript.

Washington bequeathed his books and papers, along with his Mansion House, to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, an associate justice of the Federal Supreme Court. Judge Washington failed to appreciate fully the seriousness of the obligation thus incurred and instead of safeguarding the papers with the utmost jealousy gave many, including volumes of the diary, to visitors and friends who expressed a desire to possess mementoes of the illustrious patriot. In particular he permitted Reverend William Buel Sprague, who had been a tutor in the family of Nelly Custis Lewis, to take about fifteen hundred papers on condition that he leave copies in their places. The judge also intrusted a considerable portion to the historian Jared Sparks, who issued the first considerable edition of Washington’s writings. Sparks likewise was guilty of giving away souvenirs.

Bushrod Washington died in 1829 and left the papers and letter books for the most part to his nephew John Corbin Washington. In 1834 the nation purchased of this gentleman the papers of a public character, paying twenty-five thousand dollars. The owner reserved the private papers, including invoices, ciphering book, rules of civility, etc., but in 1849 sold these also to the same purchaser for twenty thousand dollars. The papers were kept for many years in the Department of State, but in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt most of them were transferred to the Library of Congress, where they could be better cared for and would be more accessible.

Bushrod Washington gave to another nephew, John Augustine Washington, the books and relics in the dining-room of the Mansion House. In course of time these were scattered, some being bought for the Boston Athenaeum, which has decidedly the larger part of Washington’s library; others were purchased by the state of New York, and yet others were exhibited at the Centennial Exposition and were later sold at auction. Among the relies bought by New York was a sword wrongly said to have been sent to the General by Frederick the Great.

One hundred and twenty-seven of his letters, mostly to William Pearce, his manager at Mount Vernon during a portion of his presidency, were bought from the heirs of Pearce by the celebrated Edward Everett and now belong to the Long Island Historical Society. These have been published. His correspondence with Tobias Lear, for many years his private secretary, are now in the collection of Thomas K. Bixby, a wealthy bibliophile of St. Louis. These also have been published. The one greatest repository of papers is the Library of Congress. Furthermore, through the unwearying activities of J. M. Toner, who devoted years to the work, the Library also has authenticated copies of many papers of which it does not possess the originals.

All told, according to Mr. Gaillard Hunt, who has them in charge, the Washington manuscripts in the Library of Congress is the largest collection of papers of one person in the world. The collection contains about eighteen thousand papers in his own hand, press copies, or drafts in the writing of his secretaries, and many times that number of others. As yet all except a small part are merely arranged in chronological order, but soon it is to be sumptuously bound in royal purple levant. The color, after all, is fitting, for he was a King and he reigns still in the hearts of his countrymen.

Benjamin Franklin knew the great men of earth of his time, the princes and kings of blood royal. Near the close of his life he wrote in his will: “My fine crabtree walking-stick with a gold head, curiously wrought in the form of a cap of Liberty, I give to my friend, and the friend of mankind, General Washington. If it was a sceptre, he has merited it, and would become it.”

And thus Thackeray, who knew the true from the false, the dross from pure gold: “Which was the most splendid spectacle ever witnessed, the opening feast of Prince George in London or the resignation of Washington? Which is the noble character for ages to admire—yon fribble dancing in lace and spangles, or yonder hero who sheathes his sword after a life of spotless honor, a purity unreproached, a courage indomitable, and a consummate victory? Which of these is the true gentleman? What is it to be a gentleman? Is it to have lofty aims, to lead a pure life, to keep your honor virgin; to have the esteem of your fellow-citizens, and the love of your fireside; to bear good fortune meekly; to suffer evil with constancy; and through evil or good to maintain truth always? Show me the happy man whose life exhibits these qualities, and him will we salute as gentleman, whatever his rank may be; show me the prince who possesses them, and he may be sure of our love and loyalty.”

‘Tis often distance only that lends enchantment, but it is Washington’s proud pre-eminence that he can bear the microscope. Having read thousands of his letters and papers dealing with almost every conceivable subject in the range of human affairs, I yet feel inclined, nay compelled, to bear witness to the greatness of his heart, soul and understanding. He was human. He had his faults. He made his mistakes. But I would not detract a line from any eulogium of him ever uttered. Words have never yet been penned that do him justice.

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