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Archive for July, 2012

July 31, 2012

On this Day: Lafayette Receives his Commission


On July 31, 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in Philadelphia to receive his commission as Major General in the Continental Army. Lafayette was recruited originally because of his of his connections to the Court of Louis XVI, rather than his military acumen. In fact, the young Lafayette had yet to have seen military combat to that point in his life.

Lafayette and a cadre of French officers landed off the coast of Georgetown, South Carolina on June 13, 1777, after fifty-six days at sea. The group then rode to Philadelphia to volunteer for the Continental Army. On July 31, the nineteen-year-old Lafayette received his Major General’s sash. Five days later he met George Washington for the first time. Washington had travelled to Philadelphia to brief members of Congress on the precarious state of military affairs.

The two men bonded almost immediately. Washington was taken by Lafayette’s profound dedication to the American cause. Lafayette was awed by Washington. Writing in his memoir about the pair’s first encounter, Lafayette explained, “Although he was surrounded by officers and citizens, it was impossible to mistake for a moment his majestic figure and deportment; nor was he less distinguished by the noble affability of his manner.”1

After dinner Washington asked the young Frenchman to accompany him on an inspection of the city’s defenses. Lafayette later described the moment in his memoirs: “The majesty of his figure and his height were unmistakable… It was with such simplicity that two friends were united whose attachment and confidence were cemented by the greatest of causes.”2 The meeting began a friendship and mentorship that would continue through the war years and afterwards, spanning the remainder of Washington’s lifetime.

    1. Marquis de Lafayette, Memoirs, Correspondence and Manuscripts of General Lafayette Published by His Family, Vol. 1 (New York: Saunders and Otley, 1837), 18.

  • Lafayette and the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Vol. I, eds. Stanley J. Idzerda, et al (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 91.


Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, George Washington Encyclopedia
This post is based on information taken from the George Washington Encyclopedia, a new online resource that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. The encyclopedia is due to launch during the Summer of 2012

Category: On This Day

July 26, 2012

What’s New At The Dig: Martha Washington


We had a fun discovery in the archaeological laboratory this week. While washing artifacts from our laundry yard excavations, our field and lab tech Laura Tancredi, noticed writing on one of the recently recovered ceramics. On closer inspection, she identified the ceramic as a piece of Chinese porcelain with the letters “ode.” Opening our study collection cabinet she found a box containing fragments of Martha Washington’s States China and discovered that the “ode” sherd mended with a fragment found during the 1988 excavations of the laundry yard. Our “ode” was actually “Rhode” as in Rhode Island!

George and Martha Washington owned many different sets of dishes during their life at Mount Vernon and one of the most recognizable is the States China pattern. In 1796, Martha Washington received a monogrammed tea service as a gift from Andrea van Braam Houckgeest, the Director of Canton operations for the Dutch East India Company. The manifest of the Lady Louisa, the ship that carried the tea set from Canton to Philadelphia lists “A box of china for Lady Washington.”

Van Braam designed the porcelain for Mrs. Washington using motifs which illustrate his belief in the young United States. Martha Washington’s initials are in the center surrounded by a chain with the names of the 15 states in the country at that time, including little Rhode Island. Representing strength in unity, this idea is also echoed in the Latin motto seen on the red ribbon in the center of the vessels. The rim of each object contains a blue serpent grasping its tail creating a circle that symbolizes eternity.

Martha Washington was living in Philadelphia serving as first lady when Van Braam presented her with this unique gift. It was used in the presidential household and then traveled to Mount Vernon in 1797 when George Washington completed his second term in office. In her will Martha left this “tea service” to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis (Washy). These two fragments from the laundry yard, found more than 20 years apart, are from a saucer and provide evidence that at least one of the original 45 pieces broke and was discarded into the laundry yard, before Washy inherited it and moved the porcelain to his own home.

Category: Archaeology at Mount Vernon: Digging History, Martha Washington

July 17, 2012

MV Mailbox: Greetings from 1955


Summer at Mount Vernon means lots of vacationing tourists! Presumably on their own summer vacation, Mary and Henry sent this postcard on June 27, 1955 to their parents, Mr. and Mrs. G.J. Divens of Vinton, VA. “Hello folks, Having a good time wish you all was with us. Love, Mary and Henry.” The most striking detail about the front of the postcard, besides the 1950s-era wallpaper and drapes, is George Washington’s original bedstead. Still in the Mansion today, the bed was custom made in Philadelphia at the request of Martha Washington in order to fit the dimensions of her husband. The frame is six feet six inches in length and six feet in width, perfect for the six-foot-three general. It was in this bed that George Washington died of a throat infection in 1799. After his death, Martha Washington closed this room and used small bedroom on the third floor until her death in 1802.

Although the wall colors have been muted significantly and the drapes have been removed since 1955, George Washington’s bedstead remains the most striking feature of the master bedroom. With great confidence, though perhaps trite, we can say that “George Washington slept here.”

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

July 12, 2012

What’s Blooming in the Garden This Week?


“There is an immense, extremely well-cultivated garden behind the right Wing. The choicest fruits in the country are to found there…” Baron Ludwig von Closen, one of the many tourists at Mount Vernon, made the comment above in his journal during a 1782 visit. The Baron, like so many other visitors to the estate, delighted in the beauty of the Mount Vernon gardens and grounds. One of the “fruits” he may have seen during his walks in the garden is the patty pan squash, seen in the slide show above. This squatty, whitish vegetable with scalloped edges is aptly named for the patty pan, a ceramic container used in the eighteenth-century to bake small fruit and meat or fish pies.

Other “fruits” from the lower garden include beets and apples, both shown above. Beets are specifically mentioned in the gardener’s papers; on August 4, 1798, the gardener records that three men spent the day “gathering peas, beans, Carrots, parsnips, beats [sic], for seed.” We also know that on March 17, 1798 the gardeners planted apple trees in the vineyard, on March 24, 1798, the gardeners spent the day grafting apple trees, and on September 15, 1798, the gardeners harvested apples.

Meanwhile in the upper garden, there are several varieties of flowers blooming; Belamcamda, also known as the blackberry lily, Echinacea, or coneflower, and hibiscus are included in the slideshow. As mentioned in earlier posts, Washington did not provide much detail on the types of flowers in the upper garden. We do know that the enclosure evolved over time from a space devoted to purely practical concerns to one that incorporated pleasure as well. In Samuel Vaughan’s 1787 drawing of the estate, he refers to the upper garden as a kitchen garden but he is the last visitor to do so. The center of the flower beds, however, was still used for fruits and vegetables as space was needed for the kitchen’s demands.

Baron von Closen was clearly impressed with the vegetation in the upper and lower gardens as are visitors today. And having sampled some of products of the Estate’s gardens, this author can safely say that Mount Vernon still grows the “choicest fruits in the country.”

Abby Cliff

Category: What's Blooming at Mount Vernon?

July 10, 2012

On This Day: Washington Pardons Whiskey Rebels


In January of 1791, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed an excise tax “upon spirits distilled within the United States, and for appropriating the same.” The vehement rejection of this tax by Americans living in Western Pennsylvania challenged the authority of the nascent American government. By 1794, the so-called Whiskey Rebellion led President Washington to personally command the United States militia westward to stop the rebels. On this day in 1795, Washington pardoned the two whiskey rebels convicted of treason.

Western farmers viewed the tax as an abuse of federal authority that targeted individuals who relied on crops such as corn, rye, and grain to earn a profit. Shipping this harvest east was dangerous because of poor storage and inadequate roads, leading many farmers to distill their grain into liquor which was easier to ship and preserve. Large-scale farmers could easily absorb the financial strain of an additional tax. Poorer farmers were less able to pay the tax without falling into a dire financial position.

Washington initially sought to resolve the dispute peacefully, issuing a national proclamation in 1792 admonishing westerners for their resistance to the law. Two years later, however, protests became violent. In July 1794, nearly 400 whiskey rebels set fire to the home of John Neville, a regional tax collection supervisor located near Pittsburgh. In response, Washington organized a militia force of 12,950 soldiers and led them towards Western Pennsylvania.

The calling of the militia effectively ended the Whiskey Rebellion. By the time American forces reached Pittsburgh, the rebels had dispersed and could not be found. The militia apprehended approximately 150 individuals and tried them for treason. Only two–John Mitchell and Philip Weigel–were convicted. All others were freed, resulting from a lack of evidence and the inability to obtain witnesses. On July 10, 1795, with the rebellion quelled, President Washington signed a pardon for the two convicted individuals. It was the first time that the President utilized the constitutionally derived power of pardon. Most notably, under Washington’s watch the new republic survived the first significant challenge to the authority of the federal government.

View the text of Washington’s pardon, via the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, George Washington Encyclopedia
This post is based on information taken from the George Washington Encyclopedia, a new online resource that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. The encyclopedia is due to launch during the Summer of 2012.

Category: On This Day


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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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