3 pages | SMC 1556
It is not then in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.
Parson Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington, 1808
What is remembered is the stony face; the rigid bearing; the tightly compressed lips covering the famous false teeth. Reserved, punctilious, so very, very august, George Washington was the last person, an historian quipped, you would have suspected of having ever been a young man. Yet grim-faced and duty-bound though he be, Washington was made of marble only in the public eye. Writing here, just two months after handing the presidency off to John Adams, Washington was a different man. Having returned to Mount Vernon, he was exuberant, wry - and surprisingly, funny.
To his old friend still in government, Secretary of War James McHenry, Washington writes:
I am indebted to you for several unacknowledged letters; but ne'er mind that; go on as if you had them.... while I have nothing to say, that could either inform or amuse a Secretary at War in Philadelphia.
Instead, he describes his long wished-for domestic ease, which begins, he notes self-mockingly, at daybreak:
I begin my diurnal course with the sun;...if my hirelings are not in their places at that time I send them messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition; then having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of these things farther; and the more they are probed, the deeper I find the wounds are, which my buildings have sustained by an absence, and neglect of eight years. By the time I have accomplished these matters, breakfast (a little after seven o clock, about the time I presume you are taking leave of Mrs. McHenry) is ready. This over, I mount my horse and ride round my farm, 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. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well? And how different this, from having a few social friends at a cheerful board? The usual time of sitting at Table--a walk--and Tea--brings me within the dawn of Candlelight; 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 disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well; the next comes, and with it the same causes for postponement..."
Having been, as President, away from his home for eight years, the Mount Vernon to which Washington returned, was in profound disarray. Everything needed repair. Buildings, fields, even the mansion itself, were all falling apart. Indeed, on inspecting a cellar in the mansion, Washington was horrified to discover the great beam supporting the large dining hall to have so decayed, that even a modest number of guests, were they to gather on the floor above, were likely to end up, sunk, in the cellar. Such a misfortune might well have proven less a calamity than the catastrophe, however, of having to care and feed those "strange faces" who, "out of respect," required Washington to put them up - at, of course, his cost - for a day or two.
The supervising of work at Mount Vernon - which, daily, would seem to be five hours or so in the saddle; the constant crowd of visitors, to oblige and entertain; the lateness of the hour to which, finally, Washington might attend to his own business, all contributed, Washington closes, to why he never gets to his mail. Or why, he jokes, he would likely die before he was able to finally pick up another book...
This will account for your letters remaining so long unacknowledged; and having given you the history of a day, it will serve for a year.... it may strike you, that in this detail no mention is made of any portion of time allotted for reading; the remark would be just, for I have not looked into a book since I came here, 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.
Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pages, quarto,
Published in Fitzpatrick: 35:455-456
all pages and transcript
On the score of the plated ware in your possession I will say something in a future letter.-- at present I shall only add that I am always and affectionately Yours