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Archive for June, 2012

June 28, 2012

What’s New At The Dig: Washington’s Laundry Yard

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Mount Vernon’s archaeologists began their summer excavations in the laundry yard a few weeks ago. The work is designed to learn about the fence which surrounded the yard during George Washington’s life. In 1988 and 1989 the archaeologists excavated in this area and discovered evidence for at least three fences — one built in the 1770s, one in the 1800s and the modern one visible today. The Vaughan Plan of Mount Vernon, a map from 1787, shows a fence around the laundry yard — we hope to learn more about the spacing and size of this fence.

Our first two excavation units are on the south side of the laundry yard in two spots that were not excavated during the 1980s. Our summer interns Caroline Kellough (left) and Matt Wagner (right) are excavating the modern layers of soil and will work their way back to older soils deposited during George Washington’s life.

Looking up the south lane, archaeologist over the next several months will work between the coach house, wash house, smoke house and store house in the next several months tracing the fence between each of these buildings. In the autumn, carpenters will restore the fence replacing it with one that is more authentic and looks like the one Washington had around the yard in 1799. The archaeologists work in the laundry yard Tuesdays — Thursdays this summer, stop by the laundry yard to say hello if you visit Mount Vernon.

Esther White

Category: Archaeology at Mount Vernon: Digging History

June 27, 2012

Mount Vernon Acquires George Washington’s Acts of Congress

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George Washington’s original copy of the Acts of Congress is returning to Mount Vernon. On June 22, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association secured the prized volume for the shelves of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. The acquisition ranks among the most significant in the history of the association.

Emblazoned with Washington’s bookplate and featuring his handwritten notes penciled in the margins, the 106-page book contains Washington’s personal copy of the U.S. Constitution, a draft of the Bill of Rights, and other documents recording the early acts of the new Congress. Washington received the book in 1789, his first year in office as U.S. president, and brought it with him to Mount Vernon upon his retirement from public office in 1797.

“Washington himself once wrote, ‘The Constitution is our guide, which I will never abandon.’ By acquiring this book– his personal copy of the Constitution– we are taking him quite literally,” said Ann Bookout, Regent, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. “It is extremely rare to see a book of such significance change hands, and we felt that it was essential to muster our resources to bring this extraordinary document home to Mount Vernon.”

The volume will be a centerpiece for the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. Currently under construction near the main entrance to the estate, the library will serve as a place to safeguard Washington’s documents as well as a gathering place for leaders and scholars. The association has currently raised more than $85 million of the $100 million needed for the construction of the library and its initial slate of programming.

“We hope that other patriotic Americans will be inspired by our decision to secure this most important and unique document and cornerstone of our nation’s history and step up to lend their support to our cause,” added Bookout.

For more information about the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of Mount Vernon, visit MountVernon.org/WashingtonLibrary.

Rebecca Aloisi

Category: Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, George Washington, Mount Vernon, Object Spotlight, Research/Lectures

June 26, 2012

On this Day in 1775: Washington Allays Fears

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On June 26, 1775, George Washington met with leaders from the New York Provincial Congress while passing through New York City en route to Boston to take command of the Continental Army. The group gathered to celebrate Washington’s naming as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army just eleven days earlier. Peter Van Brugh Livingston, president of the New York Congress, delivered a congratulatory address on behalf of the legislature. Livingston celebrated Washington as “a Gentlemen from whose Abilities and Virtue we are taught to expect both Security and Peace.”

Livingston’s speech, however, also expressed fears regarding the potential tyranny of a standing army. He explained that while “We have the most flattering Hopes of Success in the glorious Struggle for American Liberty,” the legislature also hoped for the “fullest Assurances that whenever this important Contest shall be decided…You will cheerfully resign the important Deposit committed unto Your Hands, and reassume the Character of our worthiest Citizen.”

Washington understood the need to allay anxieties to both politicians and the public, who feared that the military would not transfer power into civilian hands at the end of the war. In his response, Washington had to strike a balance between authority and an understanding of the issue’s importance.

Washington replied directly to Livingston, explaining “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen and we shall most sincerely rejoice with you in that happy hour when the establishment of American liberty, on the most firm and solid foundations, shall enable us to return to our private stations in the bosom of a free, peaceful, and happy country.”

With these words, Washington seemingly calmed fears within the New York Provincial Congress regarding military despotism. The body ordered the two addresses printed and published, and newspapers throughout the east coast printed the exchange. Washington also established a recurring theme for his career in charge of the Continental Army, emphasizing the need to defer to civilian authority.

View a copy of the New York Provincial Congress’ address to Washington, via the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

Read Washington’s full response, from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, George Washington Encyclopedia

Category: On This Day

June 21, 2012

MV Mailbox: Greetings from 1913

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Almost one hundred years ago, Mrs. Thompson of Little Rock, Arkansas received this postcard from a friend or relative named Sue who was having “such a grand time” in Washington, D.C. The front of the card shows Mount Vernon’s small parlor interpreted as a music room. The room prominently features Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis’ harpsichord which George Washington purchased for his step-granddaughter in 1793 for 71 pounds, 7 shillings and 5 pence or about $317.43. Nelly’s brother George Washington (Washy) Park Custis remembered that Nelly practiced often and wrote in his Recollections that she would “play and cry, and cry and play.” Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a young Polish nobleman, during his visit in 1798, noted that Nelly Custis’ musical talents were “better than the usual woman of America or even Europe.” In 1797 the harpsichord traveled with Nelly and the Washington family from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon after Washington’s presidency; Nelly mentioned to friend Elizabeth Bordley in a 1797 letter that she looked forward to playing duets with her sister on the instrument once it arrived. Many years later, during an 1860 visit, the Prince of Wales attempted to play Nelly’s harpsichord but the instrument could only manage what the local newspaper called a “thin wiry response, even to the touch of royal hands.”

Unfortunately visitors today do not have the privilege of trying their hand at the harpsichord, but we can still imagine many a summer’s eve spent listening to Ignaz Pleyel’s piano variations, J.C. Bach’s sonatas, and Haydn’s symphonies.

The postcards featured in the MV Mailbox series and hundreds others are part of Mount Vernon’s postcard collection. They range vastly in age and subject matter, but have one underlying commonality: George Washington’s estate.

Abby Cliff

Category: MV Mailbox

June 19, 2012

Interpreting History at Mount Vernon

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Anyone visiting the estate this summer will have the chance to meet and interact with a new character interpreter — representing an important historical figure from Washington’s time. Christopher Sheels worked as a body servant to George Washington. The term “body servant” in today’s vocabulary sounds more like a body guard, but in the late 18th Century, a body servant was another term for personal assistant or attendant. Sheels was responsible for things like making sure Washington’s clothes were ready in the morning, that his hair was pulled back neatly, helping to deliver messages, and tending to the General’s horse. He became Washington’s sole attendant after his uncle Billy Lee was injured and could no longer fulfill his duties. Sheels was just a teenager when he took over responsibility as the body servant.

Sheels was a “dower” slave brought to the Mount Vernon estate by Martha Custis after her marriage to Washington. He was a trusted man and was taken to the presidential households with Washington in both New York and Philadelphia. He is believed to be one of the few Mount Vernon slaves that could read and write.

As a “dower slave,” Sheels was not included among the 124 slaves whom George Washington owned and freed under the terms of his will upon his death in 1799. In 1802, following Martha Washington’s death he was given back to the Custis estate.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19 that the Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. What a momentous day in history.

Jennifer McCreery

 

Category: George Washington, On This Day, Slavery

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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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