Chapter VI – Romantic Days in the Early Republic
by Mary Caroline Crawford – 1912
[Note. This is a scanned document. I don’t necessarily agree with its tone, but it is representation of how much of the world viewed Virginia at the turn of the 20th century. The author—Mary Caroline Crawford was a resident of Boston, writer for the popular press of the day, also wrote Old Boston Days and Ways and Romantic Days in Old Boston. This was also near the end of the Victorian writing style period. So, please consider this when reading this chapter. — Jeff Weaver]
Richmond and Some Famous Virginian Homes
AT the outbreak of the Revolution Richmond was smaller than either Fredericksburg or Norfolk and possessed far less importance; its sole claim to be a capital lay in its geographical situation. St. John’s Church, on the hill, and Col. Byrd’s residence, Belvidere, were the only impressive buildings then to be seen as one approached the place. The settlement was, in very truth, but a collection of disjointed country villages lying around a central trading-station. What the city lacked in splendid architecture it made up in noble men, however, chief of these being, of course Patrick Henry, that extraordinary figure whose matchless courage, fiery eloquence and compelling magnetism placed him, early in his public career, among the undying heroes of our country. It was in old St. John’s that the second Virginian convention of delegates assembled in March, 1775; here it was, therefore, that Henry made that great speech, with its climax, “Give me liberty or give me death,” thus stepping forth “at the appointed time, like one of the ancient prophets, burdened with a message of wisdom and hope.”
It was not, however, until 1779, when Thomas Jefferson was chief officer of the State, that the seat of government was removed from Williamsburg to Richmond. The foundation of the new Capitol was laid August 18, 1785. Jefferson stood sponsor for the model which was used— that of the Maison Carree at Nimes, France— considering that structure “one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful and precious morsels of architecture left us by antiquity…very simple but noble beyond expression.” Unfortunately, the Richmond edifice did not measure up to the hopes cherished for it; but it was far from being a commonplace building.
Very great credit for the evolution of the shabby little trading-place into a really impressive city is due to Colonel John Mayo, proprietor and founder of the celebrated Mayo Bridge, just below the falls of the James River at Richmond. Colonel Mayo obtained a charter for this bridge in 1785 but, finding that this was all he was likely to obtain from the State, boldly built the structure at his own being laughed at, the while, as an ill-balanced experimenter. Only ridicule had greeted his petition for a charter, one prominent member of the Legislature observing “that after passing that bill he supposed they would pass one to build a ladder to the moon.
Colonel Mayo’s wife was Abigail De Hart, of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and their eldest; daughter, Maria, became the reigning belle of the day. She was a great beauty, wrote and repeated poetry charmingly and sang and played exquisitely on the harp. Moreover, she was so fascinating in manner that one hundred suitors are said to have been refused by her ere she married General Winfield Scott. Even he did not win her easily. She said him nay as Mr. Scott, again as Captain Scott, and still again as Colonel Scott. But when he ‘came to her as General Scott, hero of Lundy’s Lane, and begged; for the honor of her hand, she capitulated and they were married at Bellville, on the evening of March 11, 1817, to the accompaniment of what a letter of the times describes as “splendid doings.”
In a charming article entitled “Some Richmond Portraits,” published in the Harper’s Magazine for April, 1885, there is a little sketch of Richmond Society during this period. The cravat, we are told, was an important part of a gentleman’s toilet, and a Richmond exquisite “vested himself like a silk-worm in its ample folds.” His valet held one end and he the other of the long thin texture, the former walking around his master till both ends met, when they were tied in a large bow. The Richmond exquisite who could not afford a valet tied one end of his cravat to the bed-post and then began the exercise which served to equip him with a properly swathed neck.
A highly entertaining glimpse of Richmond social life in 1807 is afforded by a racy passage in one of Washington Irving’s letters. “By some unlucky means or other,” he writes,” when I first made my appearance in Richmond got the character among three or four novel-read damsels of being an interesting young man; now of all characters in the world, believe me, this is the most intolerable for any young man who has a will of his own to support; particularly in warm weather. The tender-hearted fair ones think you absolutely at their command; they conclude that you must, of course, be fond of moonlight walks and rides at daybreak, and red-hot strolls in the middle of the day, (Fahrenheit’s Thermom. 98° in the shade) and ‘melting-hot,’ ‘hissing-hot’ tea parties; and what is worse they expect your to talk sentiment and act Romeo, and Sir Charles and King Pepin all the while. ‘Twas too much for me; had I been in love with any of them I believe I could have played the dying swain as eloquently and foolishly as most men; but not having the good luck to be inspired by the tender passion, I found the slavery insupportable; so I forthwith set about ruining my character as speedily as possible. I forgot to go to tea parties; over-slept myself of a morning; I protested against the moon and derided that blessed planet most villainously. In a word, I was soon given up as a young man of most preposterous and incorrigible opinions, and was left to do e’en just as I pleased.”
The occasion which had brought Irving to Richmond was the trial for treason of Aaron Burr, of which we have heard in a previous chapter. Irving had no connection of any importance with this cause celebre, but the presiding judge, Chief Justice Marshall, was a Richmond man of such high qualities and delightful simplicity as must particularly have appealed to a student and writer of Irving’s temperament. Judge Marshall was wont to market for himself and might often be seen, at an early hour, returning home with a pair of fowls or a basket of eggs in his hand. For many years he traveled the nearly two hundred miles between Richmond and Raleigh, where he held Federal Court, in a vehicle known as a “stick gig,” with one horse and no attendant. He wrote his own epitaph in order that only the bare facts of his life should there find a place.
Another famous lawyer who should be connected with the Richmond of this era—in spite of the fact that we always associate him chiefly with Kentucky – is Henry Clay. Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia, April 12, 1777, the son of a Baptist minister who died early. Thus it was that the boy had a childhood marked by extreme poverty and was obliged, at fourteen, to begin life as a handy-lad in a small retail store of Richmond. The study of law early began to attract him, however, and he was soon admitted to the bar. His great success in his profession began soon after his removal to Lexington, Kentucky, which State he represented in Washington for the greater part of the half century between the winter of 1806, when he was first a senator, to the year 1852 when he died. He was recognized as the most distinguished spokesman of the South to be found in Washington. Though not so keen as Calhoun he possessed the rare faculty of inspiring his hearers by his fervid appeals and filling them with his own enthusiasm. For the election of 1832 he was run as candidate for President by the National Republican party which had been formed under his leadership.
The favorite amusement of Richmond in early Republican days was loo and it is sad to add that the Richmond ladies played it to excess. They would meet at each other’s houses of an afternoon, enjoy tea and gossip, and then play bo for stakes which often grew quite heavy as the afternoon waned. For, although the sums ventured at first were always small, the amounts in the pool were allowed to accumulate, until, with forfeits, they often totalled seventy-five or one hundred dollars. “The practice of playing thus became at last a social evil; domestic duties were neglected, mothers forgot their children, wives rifled the pocket books of their husbands; gentlemen gambled away their gold vest-buttons and ladies their ear-rings and bracelets, carried away by the mad spirit of loo.”
All the writers of the period credit to the burning of the Richmond Theatre, December 26, 1811, the change from these light and careless ways to the graver and more serious tone which soon characterized Richmond society. “The families seated on the hills,” one of these writers says, “were a polished, refined, sociable, pleasure-loving community, gathered from the different counties because, from time immemorial, the wealth and fashion and beauty of Virginia had assembled at the capital, particularly at the time of the sessions of the General Assembly. The theatre was one and but one of their occasional amusements, and not the ones of the highest refinement. An old-fashioned Virginia dining party, select in its company, unbounded in its elegant preparations, was unbounded in its refined indulgence of the appetite, and the delicate attentions of social intercourse. Here was the display of taste in dress, elegance in manners, powers of conversation and every accomplishment that adorns society. The theatre was a promiscuous gathering for a few hours less attractive than the dining or dancing party, but one of the round of pleasure that occupied the time of the fashionable and the wealthy.
“On that fatal night (December 26, 1811) the benefit of an admired actor enlisted the feelings of the community. Mr. Smith, Governor of the State, Venable, president of the Bank of Virginia, Botts, an eminent lawyer, members of the Assembly, matronly ladies, fascinating belles, blooming girls, officers of the army and navy, men and youth from the city and country, were collected in one splendid group, such as a threatre seldom sees. Alas! That such a gathering should be for death, a most terrible death! An order was given about the light. The boy that held the strings objected—’that it would set the scenery on fire.’ The order was repeated. The boy obeyed. And immediately the theatre was in flames.”
Seventy-two individuals, the flower of Richmond and the State, perished in this fire, and since none of the bereaved could recognize their own dead, a common burial was held. The whole city was in mourning; and the whole city seemed, too, with one accord to acknowledge “God’s providence in the concurrence of circumstances preceding the catastrophe. The gallantry, and heroism, and blind fatality of that suffering night have never been surpassed,” declares Dr. Foote, “and never perhaps has the sudden destruction of men, women and children in one overwhelming ruin produced a greater moral effect. All classes in the community bowed down before the Lord. Christians were moved to efforts of kindness and love that the gospel might be preached abundantly in Richmond.”
Up to this time, rather curiously, Richmond had no church – except the venerable and out-of- the-way St. John’s – but this lack of conveniently-situated edifices for the accommodation of different faiths gave rise to a very excellent custom – that of using for church-worship the Hall of the House of Delegates. Here, on alternate Sundays, Parson Buchanan, an Episcopalian, and Parson Blair, a Presbyterian, presided over a pulpit which disappeared on week days. And, such was the spirit of tolerance and liberality which their fraternalism inspired, that it soon came to be the custom for the individuals of the two separate congregations to come every Sabbath! Moreover, Mr. Buchanan, being a bachelor and well-to-do, gladly shared all his fees with Mr. Blair, a married man blessed with a large family. Once an amusing joke was played on the latter by reason of this custom. Mr. Buchanan had gone thirty miles into the country to perform the marriage service and had hired a carraige for two days with which to make the journey. His fee was ten dollars. Whereupon he presented his Presbyterian brother with the following bill:
The Rev. J. D. Blair
To the Rev. J. BUCHANAN
|To hire of a carriage two days at $5||$10|
|To horse feed and other expenses to and fro||$3|
|By Wedding fee||$5|
|Balance due to J. Buchanan||$8|
Presbyterians and Episcopalians now subscribed with equal eagerness and generosity to the Monumental Church which it was determined to erect on the site of the theatre, as a memorial to the fire-victims, and for some time it remained undecided to which form of worship the resulting edifice should be dedicated. Finally the majority vote was cast in the interest of the Episcopalians with the result that, in February, 1814, Dr. Moore of New York was elected rector of the church and became bishop of the diocese. But the fraternal feelings remained undisturbed, Mr. Buchanan continuing to extend to Mr. Blair’s successor the generous help he insisted to be the right of a bachelor towards a brother-pastor responsible for wife and children.
Among the lovely women who had perished in the theatre fire was Mrs. Joseph Gallego, wife of a native of Malaga, Spain, who, with Jean Auguste Chevallie’, had built up the famous Gallego Mills of Richmond. Chevallie’, whose wife was the sister of Mrs. Gallego, had first come to Richmond in 1790, as agent of the celebrated Beaumarchais in the latter’s claim against the United States Government for moneys advanced during the American Revolution. This claim was finally settled in 1835, at which time Beaumarchais’s family accepted about one-third of the sum originally demanded. How there came to be a claim at all constitutes one of the most romantic chapters in the unwritten history of the Revolution.
Most of us know Beaumarchais, the talented son of a watchmaker, only as author of “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” But in addition to being a literary man of parts Beaumarchais was a ” king’s man,” one whose services to Louis XV had been so numerous and so varied that his biographer, Lomenie, was able to win a place among the Immortals merely by chronicling them. One of the most cherished traditions inherited by Louis XVI from his grandfather was that nobody could perform difficult and delicate services so well as Beaumarchais.
The only individual who surpassed the watch-maker’s son in resourcefulness and in a secret-service agent was that extraordinary person known as the Chevalier d’Eon, who, because he had once served his king at the Court of Russia in the disguise of a woman, has come down to us in history as a woman who pretended to be a man. To Beaumarchais d’Eon “confessed,” on a certain occasion, that he was in truth a woman, and to color his assertion declared that he was at that very moment consumed by a passion for Beaumarchasi! For once the tricky watchmaker was tricked! In Beaumarchais’s subsequent letters to de Vergennes, the the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, concerning the proposition that France should help America in her struggle for independence, there can be found no evidence that either in the least suspected d’Eon to be deceiving them. Bram Stoker asserts that when d’Eon returned to France modestly clad in coif and petticoats he had assumed the female garb merely to indulge a whim of Marie Antoinette’s; the fact is, however, that d’Eon was compelled by Louis XVI to wear the clothes that “belonged to his sex if he wished to return to France at all! And the interesting and curious thing, for our present purpose, is, that it is the king’s order directing Chevalier d’Eon to assume woman’s clothes which supplies the introduction to Beaumarchais’s accredited connection with the American Revolution. Beaumarchais had presented to the Count de Vergennes for replies in the king’s own hand (before his departure for London, December 13, 1775) a series of “essential points” regarding the Chevalier d’Eon’s clothes, and on the same paper, in the course even of the same dialogue, he passes to the American affair and seeks to gain by assault the king’s adhesion to plans with which he had been pursuing him for some time. “Finally I request before starting,” he writes, “a positive answer to my last note, for if ever a question was important it must be admitted that it is this one.” The “question” here alluded to was none other than that of French help for the Americans. Beaumarchais’s  desire to enlist France definitely on the side of America had been greatly stimulated by certain talks he had enjoyed at the London home of John Wilkes with Arthur Lee, that mischievous person of whom Franklin once said superlatively: “In sowing jealousies and suspicions, in creating quarrels and misunderstandings among friends, in malice, subtlety and indefatigable industry Arthur Lee has, I think, no equal.” Lee made Beaumarchais believe that England, France’s “natural enemy,” must soon totter to ruins unless she stopped making war with America. He also helped the wily playwright to see that, for Beaumarchais, there would be a fortune, and for him, Arthur Lee, undying fame, if only France could be persuaded to send munitions of war to America without seeming to take any part in the dispute. Thus it came about that “Roderigue Hortalez & Co.” began to have much business with the Congress of the United States; and because of Arthur Lee’s duplicity Beaumarchais, the leading member of that firm, was soon forced to employ an agent to “collect.” But what a very long way we have wandered from Richmond because the sister of that agent’s wife was one of the ladies who perished in the burning of the theatre!
Just before the burning of the theatre the mother of Edgar Allan Poe was a member of the troupe of local players. Mrs. Poe was an actress of very real ability, but her health had for some years now been failing and her family, on the verge of destitution, soon became an object for the charity of Richmond ladies. In the Enquirer of November 29, 1811, appeared the following card:
“TO THE HUMANE
“On this night, Mrs. Poe lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance; and asks it perhaps for the last time.”
A few days later, December 8, she died and her two little ones, Edgar and Rosalie, were adopted into the homes of Mrs. Allan, a young married woman of twenty-five, and of her friend, Mrs. MacKenzie. Each child soon received in baptism, at the hands of Dr. Buchanan, the family name of the home thus extended.
John Allan, who had constituted himself Edgar’s guardian, was in the tobacco business, and so prospered, as Richmond’s trade in this commodity increased, that in 1815, he went over to London to establish a branch office. Thus it came about that the impressionable dark-eyed lad who had won his wife’s heart, had the benefit for several formative years of English schooling and an English environment. The year 1820 found. Poe back in the Virginian city, however, and it was there that the early years of his young manhood were passed. Woodberry has a charming chapter on the family of which he was at this time a part and on the life he led with them. “The Allans,” we learn, “belonged to the most cultivated and agreeable society that Virginia knew in the days of her old-fashioned and justly-famed courtesy and hospitality and a boyhood spent in association with such gentlemen as Edgar constantly and familiarly met could not fail to be both pleasant and and of the highest utility in forming both manner and character…. In his home life he was indulged by the ladies of the family and the servants as a pet of the house. For he was always a favorite with women.”
The first Mrs. Allan died during the West Point training upon which Edgar soon embarked, and her husband married, in October, 1830, a lady who promptly presented him with a son and heir of his own blood. This event marked the end of Poe’s intimate connection with Richmond; for very soon now he went forth to make his own way in the world.
A very romantic love-affair of Richmond in early Republican days was that of Maria Ward and John Randolph of Roanoke. The attachment began in Randolph’s early boyhood and became, according to the writer already referred to, “the one enthralling passion of Randolph’s manhood, filling his whole being, until, as he himself said, ‘he loved her better than his own soul or Him that created it.'” A picture of Randolph, made at the period when he was the accepted lover of Maria Ward, shows him to have been, then, a singularly handsome youth, with dark and luminous eyes and a profusion of soft black hair which would have gone far, had he been much less Indian in other ways than he proved himself, to establish his direct descent from Pocahontas. But though he was a handsome youth and though his wooing of Maria Ward was long and ardent he was never to have the happiness of calling her his wife. Why their engagement came abruptly to an end no one knows. But one day they parted abruptly after an interview marked on her part by tears and on his by a furious galloping away for all time from the house which was her home.
They never met again; but, one day, learning that she was staying at a house in the neighborhood, he lingered long on the porch to hear her sing the songs they two had loved. And while she, all unconscious of his nearness, rendered one after another, the tender ballads associated with their courtship he strode up and down outside like a madman muttering, in the anguish of his heart, “Macbeth hath murdered sleep; Macbeth can sleep no more.” Maria Ward married Peyton Randolph, son of Edmund Randolph, who had been Governor of Virginia and Secretary of State under Washington. She died in 1826, still as lovely as a girl though then forty-two. Her discarded lover continued to be a somewhat violent person. He once came in contact, while in Congress, with Thomas Mann Randolph, who had married Jefferson’s daughter Martha. So bitter were the words exchanged in their debate that a duel was arrange between them but the actual encounter was, happily, prevented.
Lafayette’s return to Richmond, in 1824, was a signal for great rejoicing and for very elaborate entertainment. For the ball given in his honor the quadrangle formed by the surrounding buildings and galleries of the Eagle Hotel was floored over and covered with awnings. Yet it was to quite another part of Virginia that Lafayette turned with greatest eagerness – to the home on the Potomac where, a few years previously, he had visited Washington in his retirement. The great General was now no more but, for a few solemn moments, Lafayette stood inside the enclosure of the tomb near the river alone with the ashes of his revered friend. To George Washington Lafayette Mount Vernon had been a hospitable home during the troubled period of the French Revolution, its stately owner having then borne to him the relation of a tender guardian.
To none of the young Frenchmen, indeed, who, at this period of France’s history or earlier – came to America does Washington appear to have been indifferent. Louis Philippe and his two brothers and the Duc de Roche-foucauld-Liancourt were among the General’s most welcome visitors. The latter probably particularly pleased Washington by his sturdy declaration: “In the days of my power, under the ancient re’gime of France, I had fifty servants to wait upon me, but yet my coat was never as well brushed as now that I do it myself”. It was this nobleman, it will be re membered, who had taken to Louis XVI at Versailles news of the storming of the Bastille, and to that monarch’s exclamation, “It is a revolt!” had replied tersely, “Sire, it is a revolution!”
That this young Duke had the gift of writing as well as that of repartee we find from his book describing his travels in America. Particularly keen were his observations and comments on Virginian home life. “The Virginians generally,” he declared” enjoy a character for hospitality which they truly deserve; they are fond of company; their hospitality is sincere, and may perhaps be the reason for their spending more than they should do; for, in general they are not rich, especially in clear income. You find therefore, very frequently, a table well served and covered with plate, in a room where half the windows have been broken for ten years past, and will probably remain so ten years longer. But few houses are in a tolerate state of repair and no part of their buildings is kept better than the stables, because the Virginians are fond of hunting, races, and in short of all pleasures and amusements that render it necessary to take peculiar care, of horses, which are the fashion of the day.”
Another observant Frenchman, writing at about the same time, claims that the only thing for which an average Virginian gentleman would about only thing exert himself even a little was the oversight of his stables. Witness this account of a strenuous (?) day. “He rises about nine o’clock. He, perhaps, may make an exertion to walk as far as his stables to see his horse, – which are seldom more than fifty yards from his house. He returns between nine and ten to breakfast, which is generally of tea or coffee, bread and butter, and very thin slices of venison, ham or hung beef. He then lies down on a pallet, on the floor in the coolest room in the house in his shirt and trowsers [sic] only with a negro at his head and another at his feet to fan him and keep off the flies. Between twelve and one he takes a draft of bombo or toddy, a liquor composed of water, sugar, rum and nutmeg which is made weak and kept cool. He dines between two and three and at every table, whatever else there may be, a ham and greens of cabbage are always a standing dish. At dinner, he drinks cider, toddy, punch, port, claret or Madeira, which is generally excellent here. Having drank some few glasses of wine after dinner, he returns to his pallet with his two blacks to fan him and continues to drink toddy or sangaree all the afternoon. He does not always drink tea. Between nine and ten in the evening he eats a light supper of milk and fruit or wine sugar and fruit and almost immediately retires to bed for the night.”
If Washington had adopted a regimen approximating this he might have lived to a green old age on his charming rural estate. Instead he wore himself out riding about his farms throughout the long hot summer, surveying and carrying his compass himself.
There is a delightful anecdote about Washington as a good Samaritan to some people who had met misfortune near his country-home, which, I think, illustrates better than anything else I have ever encountered the great man’s real kindliness. John Bernard, who tells this story in his Retrospections of America  was an English actor over here to practice his profession; but he spent his summers touring about the country. One day in the summer of 1798, Bernard found himself not far from Alexandria just as a chaise bearing a young man and young woman was overturned in the road before him. To assist him in caring for the couple and setting up their overturned vehicle a horseman came galloping up and for at least half an hour, under the meridian sun in the middle of July, the two hauled and helped and lifted together. Then, the couple having been sent gratefully on their way, the actor turned to survey his fellow-helper and found him “a tall, erect, well-made man, evidently advanced in years, but who appeared to have retained all the vigor and elasticity resulting from a life of temperance and exercise. His dress was a blue coat buttoned to his chin and buckskin breeches. Though the instant he took off his hat I could not avoid the recognition of familiar lineaments – which, indeed, I was in the habit of seeing on every sign-post and over every fire-place – still I failed to identify him; and, to my surprise, I found I was an object of equal speculation in his eyes. A smile at length lighted them up and he exclaimed,’ Mr. Bernard, I believe?’ I bowed.’ ‘I had the pleasure of seeing you perform last winter in Philadelphia.’ I bowed again, and he added. . . . ‘You must be fatigued. If you will ride up to my house, which is not a mile distant, you can prevent any ill-effects of this exertion by a couple of hours’ rest.’
“I looked round for his dwelling, and he pointed to a building, which, the day before, I had spent an hour in contemplating. ‘Mount Vernon.!’ I exclaimed; and then, drawing back with a stare of wonder, ‘have I the honor of addressing General Washington?’ With a smile, whose expression of benevolence I have rarely seen equalled, he offered his hand and replied, ‘An odd sort of introduction, Mr. Bernard; but I am pleased to find that you can play so active a part in private and without a prompter.'”
And then, as they rode to Mount Vernon together, Bernard tells us that he could not but think that he had witnessed one of the strongest evidences of a great man’s claim to his reputation -” the prompt, impulsive working of a heart which, having made the good of mankind its religion, was never so happy as in practically displaying it.” That afternoon, as they were waited on by a slave, Washington confessed to his visitor that he not only prayed for freedom for the blacks but could “clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union!”
Perhaps the very best example of Virginian country life in the days of the early Republic may be gleaned from following the daily routine of this great man after he had retired to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia. One of the final festivities given to him the city where he had served as President was a splendid banquet in a hall hung with many paintings, among them one of Mount Vernon, the home to which he was about to hasten and towards which, as we now know, his heart had long been yearning. On the day preceding his retirement he wrote to Henry Knox, formerly his fellow-soldier and more recently his political coadjutor, “To the weary traveller who sees a resting place and is bending his body to lean thereon I now compare myself. . . . But although the prospect of retirement is most grateful to my soul and I have not a wish to mix again in the great world, or to partake in its politics, yet I am not without my regrets at parting with (perhaps never more to meet) the few intimates whom I love; and among these, be assured, you are one. . . . The remainder of my life which, in the course of nature, cannot be long, will be occupied in rural amusements; and though I shall seclude myself as much as possible from the noisy and bustling world, none would more than myself be regaled by the company of those I esteem, at Mount Vernon.”
For a time company was impossible, however, because, as Washington wrote, “there is scarcely a room to put a friend into or to sit in myself without the music of hammers and the odoriferous scent of paint.” Yet he was soon able to welcome guests; and so found himself the ideal life he thus outlines to Oliver Wolcott: “To make and sell a little flour annually, to repair houses going fast to ruin, to build one for the security of my papers of a public nature, and to amuse myself in agricultural and rural pursuits…. If also I could now and then meet the friends I esteem, it would fill the measure and add zest to my enjoyments; but if ever this happens it must be under iny own vine and fig tree, as I do not think it probable that I shall go beyond twenty miles from them.”
Into the task of building up his long-neglected estate Washington threw himself with characteristic energy. “I begin my diurnal course with the sun,” he wrote James McHenry, “and if my hirelings are not in their places at that time I send them messages of sorrow for their indisposition; . . . then comes breakfast at a little after seven o’clock, and this being over I mount my horse and ride around my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces come, as they say, out of respect to me…. The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, and tea bring me within the dawn of candle light; 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 and acknowledge the letters I have received; but when the lights are brought I feel tired and disinclinded to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well. The next night comes. and with it the same causes for postponement, and so on. Having given you the history of a day, it will serve for a year, and I am persuaded you will not require a second edition of it. But it may strike you that, in this detail, no mention is made of any time allotted for reading. The remark would be just, for 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.”The rather melancholy reflection with which this letter closes was not an uncommon mood with Washington at this time. There is no question about it; his arduous tasks of a lifetime had left him very tired. The throngs of people who came to see him “out of respect” wearied him, too, and because of this he soon engaged that his nephew, Lawrence Lewis, should plan to make his home at Mount Vernon for at least a part of the time. “Your aunt and I, “he wrote this young man, “are both in the decline of life and regular in our habits, especially in our hours of rising and going to bed, so I require some person (fit and proper) to ease me of the trouble of entertaining company, particularly of nights, as it is my inclination to retire (and unless prevented by very particular company I always do retire) either to bed or to my study soon after candle light. In taking those duties (which hospitality obliges one to bestow on company) off my hands, it would render me a very acceptable service.”
Lawrence Lewis accordingly made arrangements to spend a good deal of time at Mount Vernon, doing this the more gladly, we may be sure, because he soon fell in love with pretty Nelly Custis, Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter, who with her brother, George W. P. Custis, had been adopted by the General at their father’s death. Washington was very fond of this charming young girl and one of the most delightful products of his pen is a letter of half-humorous, half-serious advice sent her when her love-affairs were perplexing her a bit and when, woman-like, she had protested that she did not care a fig for any of the men she knew and so was determined “not to give herself a moment’s uneasiness on their account.” Washington shrewdly questioned her power to adhere to this resolution and wrote:” Men and women feel the same inclination towards each other now that they always have done, and which they will continue to do until there is a new order of things; and you, as others have done, may find that the passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed. Do not, therefore, boast too soon nor too strongly of your insensibility. Love is said to be an involuntary passion, and it is therefore contended that it cannot be resisted. This is true in part only, for like all things else, when nourished and supplied plentifully with aliment, it is rapid in its progress; but let these be withdrawn, and it may be stifled in its birth or much stinted in its growth. Although we cannot avoid first impressions, we may assuredly place them under guard. When the fire is beginning to kindle and your heart growing warm, propound these questions to it. Who is this invader? Have I a competent knowledge of him? Is he a man of good character? A man of sense? For, be assured, a sensible woman can never be happy with a fool. What has been his walk in life? Is his fortune sufficient to maintain me in the manner I have been accustomed to live, and as my sisters do live? And is he one to whom my friends can have no reasonable objection? If all these interrogatories can be satisfactorily answered, there will remain but one more to be asked; that, however, is an important one. Have I sufficient ground to conclude that his affections are engaged by me? Without this the heart of sensibility will struggle against a passion that is not reciprocated.
“No man knew better than Washington all that a satisfying domestic life means. To men who wrote him of an approaching or a consummated happy marriage he replied quite as frankly and fully as he had written Nelly Custis. There is extant a delightful letter sent by him to the Marquis de Chastellux when that Frenchman, of whom he appears to have been sincerely fond, sent to him the news of his recent nuptials. The letter is earlier, in point of time, than the one to Nelly Custis, but it may very well be given here, none the less, inasmuch as it shows Washington in his most genial mood.
“MOUNT VERNON, April 25, 1788.
“My DEAR MARQUIS: In reading your very friendly and acceptable letter of 21st of December, 1787 [the Marquis had then been back in France for five years] which came to hand by the last mail, I was, as you may well suppose, not less delighted than surprised to come across plain American word ‘my wife’—a Wife!—Well, my dear Marquis, I can hardly refrain from smiling to find that you are caught at last. I saw, by the Eulogium you often made on the happiness of domestic life in America; that you had swallowed the bait and that you would as surely as you are a philosopher and a soldier, be taken one day or other. So your day has at length come. I am glad of it with all my heart and soul. It is quite good enough for you. Now you are well served for coming to fight in favour of the American rebels, all the way across the Atlantic ocean, by catching that terrible contagion which like the smallpox or the plague, a man can have only once in his life, because it commonly lasts him (at least with us in America—I don’t know how you manage these matters in France) for his lifetime. And yet after all the maledictions you so richly merit on the subject the worst wish I can find it in my heart to make against Madame de Chastellux and yourself is that you may neither of you get the better of this domestic felicity during the course of your mortal existence.
“If so wonderful an event should have occasioned me, my dear Marquis, to have written in a strange style, you will understand me as clearly as if I had said what in plain English is the simple truth: do me the justice to believe that I take a heartfelt interest in whatever concerns your happiness; and in this view I sincerely congratulate you on your auspicious matrimonial connection.
“I am happy to find that Mme. de Chastellux is so intimately connected with the Duchess of Orleans, as I have always understood that this noble lady was an illustrious pattern of connubial love as well as an excellent model of virtue in general.
“While you have been making love under the banner of Hymen, the great personages of the north have been making war under the inspiration or rather the infatuation of Mars. Now for my part I humbly conceive you had much the best and wisest of the bargain; for certainly it is much more consonant to all the principles of reason and religion (natural and revealed) to replenish the earth with inhabitants rather than de-populate it by killing those already in existence; besides it is the time for the age of knight-errantry and mad heroism to be at an end.
“Your young military men, who want to reap the harvest of laurels, don’t care, I suppose, how many seeds of war are sown; but for the sake of humanity, it is devoutly to be wished, that the manly employment of agriculture and the humanizing benefits of commerce, should supersede the waste of war, and the rage of conquest; that the swords might be turned into ploughshares—the spears into pruning hooks—and as the Scripture expresses it, ‘ the nations learn war no more. . . . Hitherto there has been much greater unanimity in the favour of the proposed government here than could reasonably have been expected. Should the Constitution be adopted (and I think it will be) America will lift up her head again and in a few years become respecitable among the nations. It is a flattering and consolatory reflection that our rising republic has the good wishes of all philosophers, patriots and virtuous men in all nations and that they look upon it as a kind of asylum for mankind. God grant that we may not be disappointed in our honest expectations by our folly or perverseness!.
“With sentiments of the purest attachment and esteem, I have the honour to be, my dear Marquis, your most obedient and humble servant.
“The Marquis de Chastellux.”
This likable young Marquis had made some observations of his own Virginian home life which are not without interest. “These people,” he said, “Have the reputation and with the reason of living nobly in their houses and of being hospitable. They give strangers not only a willing but liberal reception. This arises on one hand from their having no large towns where they may assemble, by which means they are little acquainted with society, except from the visits they make; and, on the other, their land and their negores furnishing them with every article of consumption and the necessary service this renowed hospitality costs them very little… The chief magnificence of the Virginians consists in furniture, linen and plate; in which they resemble our ancestors who had neither cabinets nor wardrobes in their castles but contented themselves with a well-stored cellar and a handsome buffet. If they sometime dissipate their fortunes it is by gaming, hunting and horse-races; but the latter are of some utility inasmuch as they encourage the breed of horses, which are really very handsome in Virginia.”
The great number of slaves everywhere to be encountered in the South (Chastellux says there were two hundred thousand in Virginia alone) suggested to this traveler the desirability of wiping out this unfortunate institution. The method he recommends seems to us startling, to put it mildly: “The best expedient,” he says, “would be to export a great number of males, and to encourage the marriage of white men with the females!”
In this connection it seems worth while to add that the contemporary translator of Chastellux’s Travels, if not the Marquis himself, found much that was shocking in the negro situation of that day. “I have frequently seenin Virginia, on visits to gentlemen’s houses,” the latter asserts, “young negroes and negresses running about or basking in the court-yard naked as they came into the world…. and young negroes from sixteen to twenty years old, with not an article of clothing but a loose shirt, descending half way down their thighs, waiting at table where were ladies, without any apparent embarrassment on one side, or the slightest attempt at concealment on the other.”One privilege which de Chastellux enjoyed, while in Virginia, was that of visiting Jefferson at his charming estate, Monticello. No better description than his of Jefferson at home has come down to us: “The house of Mr. Jefferson stands pre-eminent in these retirements; it was himself who built it and preferred this situation; for although he possessed considerable property in the neighborhood, there was nothing to prevent him from fixing his residence wherever he thought proper. But it was a debt nature owed to a philosopher and a man of taste that, in his own possessions, he should find a spot where he might best study and enjoy her. He calls his house Monticello (Little Mountain), a very modest title, for it is situate& upon a very lofty one…. After ascending by a tolerably commodious road for more than half an hour, we arrived there. This house, of which Mr. Jefferson was the architect and often one of the workmen, is rather elegant and in the Italian taste though not without fault; it consists of one large square pavilion the entrance of which is by two porticos ornamented by pillars. The ground floor consists chiefly of a very large lofty salon which is to be decorated in the antique style:. above it is a library of the same form. Two small wings, with only a ground floor and attic story are joined to this pavilion and communicate with the kitchen, offices, &c. which will form a kind of basement story over which runs the terrace. My object in this short description is only to show the difference between this and the other houses of the country; for we may safely aver that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.”But it is on himself alone I ought to bestow my time. Let me describe to you a man not yet forty, tall and with a mild and pleasing countenance, but whose mind and understanding are ample substitutes for every exterior grace. An American . . . who is at once a musician skilled in drawing, a geometrician, an astronomer, a natural philosopher, legislator and statesman…. A philosopher in voluntary retirement from the world and public business.A mild and amiable wife, charming children of education he himself takes charge, a ouse to embellish, great provisions to improve, nd the arts and sciences to cultivate; these what remain to Mr. Jefferson after having played a principal character on the theatre of the new world…. The visit which I made him was not unexpected, for he had long since invited me to come and pass a few days with him in the centre of the mountains; notwithstanding which I found his first appearance serious, nay even cold. But before I had been two hours with him we were as intimate as if we had passed our whole lives together. Walking, books, but above all a conversation always varied and interesting, always supported by that sweet satisfaction experienced by two persons who, in communicating their sentiments and opinions are invariably in unison, and who understand each other at the first hint, made four days pass away like so many minutes.
“I recollect with pleasure that as we were conversing one evening over a bowl of punch, after Mrs. Jefferson had retired, our conversation turned on the poems of Ossian. It was a spark of electricity which passed rapidly from one to the other; we recollected the passages in those sublime poems which particularly struck us and entertained my fellow travelers who fortunately knew English well and were qualified to judge of their merits though they had never read the poems. In our enthusiasm the book was sent for and placed near the bowl where, by their mutual aid, the night far advanced imperceptibly upon us. Sometimes natural philosophy, at others politics or the arts were the topics of our conversation, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation from which he might contemplate the universe.”
Each plantation was a little kingdom of its own in the Virginia of that day, producing within its own limits everything needed for life except groceries and fine cloths, which were brought from Richmond or some other city in the wagons that carried to market the harvest of flour and tobacco. Society here was classified, sifted and solidly established. Everybody and everybody’s family was known. Hence the F. F. V. charactenzation of more recent years. At the outset these Virginia families universally possessed simplicity of character, good faith, honesty of purpose, loyalty to a conviction, and they exercised liberal hospitality and spent their life in the honorable discharge of their duty as they saw it. “Thackeray,” Mrs. Ellet says,” has given us George and Henry Esmond as types of the best class in Virginia society and, could he have painted a lovable woman, he might have given us the feminie side also. Madame Esmond, however, is but the colonial Englishwoman, losing the calmness that marked the caste through the wear and tear of managing ignorant servants and tenantry.”
Delightfully free from all ostentation was the hospitality which then began and which has become the tradition of Virginian life ever since. The wealth of the residents consisting as it did of land and crops, there was no imposing by false appearance and no sudden increase of expenditure was possible. “A temporary show of splendor at the cost of real inconvenience would have been regarded,” one writer says, “as a kind of forgery for the purposes of an adventurer.” And how free the hospitality was! Southerners traveling in their old-fashioned massive carriages drawn by two or four horses and attended by mounted servants would stop at any plantation in perfect assurance of a welcome even if equipped with no other introduction than the name of a mutual friend. Northern travelers usually took the mail coaches by the day, with relays of horses every ten miles, stopping where they pleased. This posting was called “taking the accommodation line.” And men and women living upon remote plantations jolted cheerfully over miles of rough road to lend their presence at social functions. Fox-hunting was a sport much affected; but often the hunt was only an excuse —for a round of visits made on the return journey, which sometimes was thus made to last a week.
To be sure, it was a provincial life. Even for purposes of education the early Republican Virginians did not stray far from home. Hard by the Washington College, of which General Lee was later president, stood the Military Institute over which Stonewall Jackson presided for eight years, and the Ann Smith Academy, to which the daughters of prominent Virginian families were sent, attended, in their own carriages and on horseback. The preservation of beauty and womanly charm shared with cultural subjects the hours devoted to study at the famous Ann Smith. Every girl was taught fine embroidery and the care of the complexion, being especially warned against turning a door-knob, touching a pair of tongs or indulging in any other practice which might “spread the hand.” Long gloves and deep – sun-bonnets were constantly worn for beauty’s sake, by these high-born Virginia maidens, Mrs. Ellet says, and the eating of meat and butter discouraged, as tending to fleshiness and fat.
Christmas, as might be expected, was the crowning festivity of a Virginian home. Then it was that the young people, back from school, and their elders, returned from steering the ship of state at Washington, or directing the exports of the country at Richmond, had merry times together in a fashion approximating the English Christmas Washington Irving has described. Weeks before the festival dawned jellies, cakes, puddings and pies were carefully prepared, and huge casks of cider and bins of luscious apples brought home. Then slaughtered fowls and tempting meats were placed in waiting. At midnight, on Christmas Eve, the darkies, to whom the festival was particularly welcome because of the gifts it brought them, would set off a big log charged with powder and blow an old ox-horn as a signal to begin the fun. The sun would scarcely be up before the visits of neighbors began, and soon there would be dancing to the tune of the fiddle, eating and drinking on the bounteously-spread tables and good stories exchanged over huge, roaring fires in the hall. Virginian home life was then at its best. For unlimited hospitality was, for the nonce, a duty as well as a pleasure.
- Most of us know Patrick Henry only as an prator. He was that; ‘by far the most powerful speaker I ever heard,’ George Mason, himself a man of great ability, pronounced him. ‘But,’ Mason continues, ‘his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is, in my opinion, the first man upon this continent as well as his abilities as in public virtues.’ Henry was born at ‘Studley,’ sixteen miles from Richmond, May 29, 1736.
- Judge Marshall’s home at the time of his death in 1835 and for many years previous was the two story brick building (erected 1795) at the corner of 9th and Marshall Streets.
- Sketches of Virginia by Rev. William Henry Foote, D.D.
- Some of my readers may be interested to look up a paper of mine on Franklin and the French Intriguers, published in Appleton’s Magazine for Feburary 1906.
- In Famous Impostors
- Beaumarchais was this affair as in all others a solider of fortune. Chevalier d’Eon, on the contrary, was man of parts whom Louis XV had been glad to honor and to trust. Court intriguqes and the fact that d’Eon possessed certain papers which jealous rivals greatly desired to have in their own hands inspired the journey of Beaumarchais in the course of which came d’Eon’s extraordinary ‘confession.’ The Chevalier’s object in making the ‘confession’ was doubtless that he might wring better terms from Beaumarchais. It is possible that Beaumarchais, when he learned that he had been duped, conveived the diabolical idea of forcing d’Eon to remain a ‘woman,’ or submit to exile. M. de Flassan, the grave author of the History of French Diplomacy asserts in his volume published in 1809 (the year before d’Eon’s death) that ‘this curious person was possessed by a mania for playing the part of a man.’ In his old age d’Eon taught sword play in London for a living, thus eking out the pension of L40 granted him by George III. He died in May, 1810, and his sex was then indisputably established by a port-mortem examination of his remains, made before several witnesses of position and repute, in accordnace with the wishes of the Chevalier’s friends, who determined thus to settle a mooted question for all time.
- Life of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol. I.
- Of Some Richmond Portraits
- Travels Through The United States, 1795-97; London, 1799.
- In the autumn of 1799, while thus engaged, he was thrown by his horse and sustained a slight accident of which he made light; and in the following December he similarly refused to take such notice as would have been wise of a wetting sustained while going about outdoors in a snowstorm. Yet he had then contracted the cold which two days later (December 14, 1799) caused his death. He was quietly buried in the old tomb on Mount Vernon’s hill-side after ample opportunity had been given to his lovers, friends, and neighbors to gaze upon his noble face as he lay on the river piazza under the open sky. Two and a half years later Mrs. Washington was laid beside him. Both their tombs are now viewed each year by reverent thousands in the spot which the General himself had selected to be his final resting place and to which removal of ths remains was made in 1837.
- Published by Harper and Brothers, New York, 1887.
- Lawrence Lewis and Nelly Custis were married on Washington’s birthday, 1799.
- Ms. letter quoted in Irving’s Life of Washington.
- The period of this young nobleman’s visit was that of the Revolution it should be recalled. His book was published in France in 1786.
- Chastellux’s descriptions of Virginia are held to be particularly valuable because they give the impressions made the higher class in Virginia upon one used to the cultivated life of France previous to that country’s Revolution.