Beautiful Productivity on the Banks of the Potomac

When not at war or presiding over the new nation in the capital (first New York, then Philadelphia), Washington lived on his plantation estate, Mount Vernon, on the western bank of the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia. (It is just 16 miles south of the nation’s current capital, Washington DC.) In the 1750s, the young Washington inherited an interest in the plantation from his half brother, Lawrence. He soon bought out the other interest, that of his brother’s widow, and with the help of slave laborers rebuilt the mansion house in a neoclassical Georgian architectural style on bluffs affording stunning views of the Potomac River valley below. Washington also expanded the plantation’s acreage by buying up adjacent and nearby farms as they came on the market.

Washington managed the sprawling grounds carefully and kept meticulous records. Like many large plantations, Mt. Vernon was highly diversified. In addition to major cash crops, at first tobacco and later wheat, the grounds were also used to produce hemp, flax, maize and several score other crops. Its gristmill produced cornmeal and flour, its blacksmith shop customized iron wares, and from a distillery erected in 1797 flowed prodigious quantities of whiskey. A small fleet of boats netted fish for both the plantation’s tables and its cash box. Washington and his slaves and hired hands also raised horses, sheep and other livestock on the grounds.

Washington never renamed the plantation even though it was named in honor of a British admiral during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748). After Washington’s death, mismanagement led to the plantation’s slow decline until 1858, when it was purchased for $200,000 by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Superintendents like Harrison Dodge restored the grounds’ extensive landscaping and its many buildings and helped to recover historic artifacts. Today, the Association operates an extensive living museum on the site. In 1960, the plantation, which now contains about 500 acres, was designated a National Historic Landmark.