Front Page Titles (by Subject) MOUNT VERNON. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1
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MOUNT VERNON. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 1.
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Duke of Buckin jham on Lord Fairfax.
On the 2nd of February I visited Mount Vernon, in company with a large party of gentlemen and ladies. Of all places in America, the family seat and burial place of Washington is that which strangers are most eager to visit. I was introduced by Judge Story to the resident family, and was received by them, with all my companions, with great civility and kindness.
The estate of Mount Vernon was inherited by General Washington from his brother. For fifteen years prior to the assembling of the first general Congress in Philadelphia, Washington spent his time chiefly on this property, repairing to the provincial legislature when duty called him there, but gladly returning to the improvement of his lands. The house was, in those days, a very modest building, consisting of only four rooms on a floor, which form the centre of the present mansion. Mrs. Washington resided there during the ten years' absence of her husband, in the wars of the Revolution; repairing to head-quarters at the close of each campaign, and remaining there till the opening of the next. The departure of an aide-de-camp from the camp, to escort the general's lady, was watched for with much anxiety, as the echoes of the last shot of the campaign died away; for the arrival of “Lady Washington” (as the soldiers called her) was the signal for the wives of all the general officers to repair to their husbands in camp. A sudden cheerfulness diffused itself through the army when the plain chariot, with the postilions in their scarlet and white liveries, was seen to stop before the general's door. Mrs. Washington was went to say, in her latter years, that she had heard the first cannon at the opening, and the last at the close of every campaign of the revolutionary war. She was a strong-minded, even-tempered woman; and the cheerfulness of her demeanour, under the heavy and various anxieties of such a lot as hers, was no mean support to her husband's spirits, and to the bravery and hopefulness of the whole army, whose eyes were fixed upon her. She retired from amidst the homage of the camp with serene composure, when the hid her fears and cares in her retired home. There she occupied herself industriously in the superintendence of the slaves, and in striving to stop the ravages which her husband's public service was making in his private fortunes.
After the peace of 1783, she was joined by her husband, who made a serious pursuit of laying out gardens and grounds round his dwelling and building large additions to it. He then enjoyed only four years of quiet, being called in 1787 to preside in the convention which framed the Constitution; and in 1789 to fill the Presidential chair. Mrs. Washington was now obliged to quit the estate with him; and it was eight years before they could take possession of it again. In 1797 Washington refused to be made President for a third term, and retired into as private a life as it was possible for him to secure. Trains of visitors sought him in his retreat, and Mrs. Washington's accomplishments as a Virginian housewife were found useful every day: but Washington was at home, and he was happy. In a little while he was one more applied to to serve the State at the head of he armies. He did not refuse, but requested to be left in peace till there should be actual want of his presence. Before that time arrived he was no more. Two years after his retirement, while the sense of enjoyment of repose was still fresh, and his mind was full of such schemes as delight the imaginations of country gentlemen, death overtook him, and found him, though the call was somewhat sudden, ready and willing to go. In a little more than two years he was followed by his wife. From the appearance of the estate, it would seem to have been going to decay ever since.
Our party, in three carriages, and five or six on horseback, left Washington about nine o'clock, and reached Alexandria in an hour and a half, though our passage over the long bridge which crosses the Potomac was very slow, from its being in a sad state of dilapidation. Having ordered a late dinner at Alexandria, we proceeded on our way, occasionally looking behind us at the great dome of the Capitol, still visible above the low hills which border the grey, still Potomac, now stretching cold amidst the wintry landscape. It was one of the coldest days I ever felt; the bitter wind seeming to eat into one's very life. The last five miles of the eight which lie between Alexandria and Mount Vernon wound through the shelter of the woods, so that we recovered a little from the extreme cold before we reached the house. The land appears to be quite impoverished; the fences and gates are in bad order; much of the road was swampy, and the poor young lambs, shivering in the biting wind, seemed to look round in vain for shelter and care. The conservatories were almost in rains, scarcely a single pane of glass being unbroken; and the house looked as if it had not been painted on the outside for years. Little negroes peeped at us from behind the pillars of the piazza as we drove up. We alighted in silence, most of us being probably occupied with the thought of who had been there before us,—what crowds of the noble, the wise, the good had come hither to hear the yet living voice of the most unimpeachable of patriots! As I looked up, I almost expected to see him standing in the doorway. My eyes had rested on the image of his remarkable countenance in almost every house I had entered; and here, in his own dwelling, one could not but look for the living face with something more that the eye of the imagination. I cared far less for less for any of the things that were shown me within the house than to stay in the piazza next the garden, and fancy how he here walked in meditation, or stood looking abroad over the beautiful river, and pleasing his eye with a far different spectacle from that of camps and conventions.
Many prints of British landscapes, residences, and events, are hung up in the apartments. The ponderous key of the Bastille still figures in the hall, in extraordinary contrast with everything else in this republican residence. The Bible in the library is the only book of Washington's now left. The best likeness of the great man, known to all travelers from the oddness of the material on which it is preserved, is to be seen here, sanctioned thus by the testimony of the family. The best likeness of Washington happens to be on a common pitcher. As soon as this was discovered, the whole edition of pitchers was bought up. Once or twice I saw the entire vessel, locked up in a cabinet, or in some such way secured from accident: but most of its possessors have, like the family, cut out the portrait, and had it framed.
The walk, planned and partly finished during Washington's life,—the winding path on the verge of the green slope above the river, must be very sweet in summer. The beauty of the situation of the place surprised me. The river was nobler, the terrace finer, and the swelling hills around more varied that I had imagined; but there is a painful air of desolation over the whole. I wonder how it struck the British officers in 1814, when, in passing up the river on their bandit expedition to burn libraries and bridges, and raze senate chambers, they assembled on deck, and raze senate chambers, they assembled on deck, and uncovered their heads as they passed the silent dwelling of the great man who was not there to testify his disgust at the service they were upon. If they knew what it was that they were under orders to do, it would have been creditable to them as men to have mutinied in front of Mount Vernon.
The old tomb from which the body of Washington had been removed ought to be obliterated or restored. It is too painful to see it as it is now,—the brickwork mouldering, and the paling broken and scattered. The red cedars still overshadow it; and it is a noble resting-place. Every one would mourn to see the low house destroyed, and the great man's chamber of dreamless sleep made no longer sacred from the common tread: but anything is better than the air of neglect which now wounds the spirit of the pilgrim. The body lies, with that of Judge Washington, in a vault near, in a more secluded, but far less beautiful situation than that on the verge of the Potomac. The river is not seen from the new vault.; and the erection is very sordid. It is of red brick, with an iron door, and looks more like an over than anything else, except for the stone slab, bearing a funereal text, which is inserted over the door. The bank which rises on one side is planted with cedars, pines, and a sprinkling of beech and birch, so that the vault is overshadowed in summer, as the places of the dead should be. The President told me that the desolation about the tomb was a cause of uneasiness to himself and many others; and that he had urged the family, as the body had been already removed from its original bed, to permit it to be interred in the centre of the Capitol. They very naturally cling to the precious possession; and there is certainly something much more accordant with the spirit of the man in a grave under the trees of his own home than in a magnificent shrine: but, however modest the tomb may be,—were it only such a green hillock as every rustic lies under,—it should bear tokens of reverent care. The grass and shade which he so much loved are the only ornaments needed; the absence of all that can offend the eye and hurt the spirit of reverence, is all that the patriot and the pilgrim require.
Before we reached the crazy bridge, which it had been difficult enough to pass in the morning, the sweet Potomac lay in clear moonshine, and the lights round the Capitol twinkled from afar. On arriving at our fireside, we found how delightful a total change of mood sometimes is. Tea, letters, and English newspapers awaited us: and they were a surprising solace, chilled or feverish as we were with the intense cold and strong mental excitement of the day.
end of vol. i.