George Washington's Legacy  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions.

George Washington was exhausted when he arrived at his farm in Mount Vernon in 1783.  The winter was cold and the snow was deep on the banks of the Potomac.  It blocked roads and Washington wasn’t able to even visit his mother in Fredericksburg. 

For him it was a time of quiet, rest and reflection after leading the nation in its struggle for independence.

“I have not only retired from all public employment, but I am retiring within myself…I will move gently down the stream of time until I sleep with my fathers,” he wrote in a letter to Henry Knox.

When the weather warmed Washington hoped to spend time close to the land managing his five, run-down farms at Mount Vernon. 

Washington was willing to play the role of the glorified “unifier.”  But in truth he understood he was a simple man doing a complex job.

He said it was the only place he could really be himself.

Washington woke up every morning before dawn, walked to his study, read and answered letters until breakfast.  He wrote friends that his health was good.  In reality his eyesight and hearing were failing, he had continual toothaches and his hands slightly trembled. 

After breakfast Washington got on his horse, rode out to his farms, checked on his land and gave instructions to his overseers about caring for them.

Family, business, riding and entertaining friends mattered most to Washington now.  He didn’t want to be pulled back into government.

On Feb. 4, 1789, the presidential electors met and every single one voted for George Washington to become the nation’s first president.  It would be the test of Washington’s life.

He borrowed 600 pounds to cover his immediate debts and travel expenses and headed to the nation’s temporary capital in New York.

Martha Washington followed a month later.

“I had little thought,” she wrote in a 1789 letter, “when the war was finished, that any circumstances could possibly happen, which would call the General into public life again…Yes I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country.”

In the eyes of his contemporaries Washington was already a hero.  It was an uncomfortable position for the man.  Behind his back critics whispered he looked a little too regal up there on his white stallion with his leopard-skin cloth and gold-rimmed saddle.    

Washington was willing to play the role of the glorified “unifier.”  But in truth he understood he was a simple man doing a complex job.

By the end of his first term Washington was 60 and just wanted to go back to Mount Vernon and be a farmer.  His cabinet would have none of it and Washington was re-elected as president on March 4, 1793.

Toward the end of his presidency Washington sat for portrait painter Gilbert Stuart.  Stuart tried to relax around the president by making small talk about history and battles.  It didn’t help.

“You must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart the painter,” he said.

Washington said he preferred they both remember who they were.  Gilbert went on to paint the next five presidents of the United States.

On Nov. 14, 2009, Brunk Auctions featured a selection of Washington items in its auction.  Here are some current values.

Update:  Jan, 27, 2018; George Washington (1732-1799), founding father, commander-in-chief of colonial forces during the American Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States was the subject of an early book, a bound copy of the first five issues of volume one of “The Massachusetts Magazine;” or “Monthly Museum of Knowledge and Rational Entertainment.” The book was signed by him on the top of the title page and sold at Case Antiques’ auction for $138,000.

George Washington

Traveling Desk; painted pine; engraved portrait of Washington on top; 1812; 9 ¾ inches by 21 ¾ inches;  $3,450.

After Gilbert Stuart; oil on canvas; Washington at Dorchester Heights; circa 1830; 39 ½ inches by 29 ½ inches;  $7,475.

Samuel H. Sexton; oil on canvas; Washington’s Passage of the Delaware; after Thomas Sully; 1839; 35 ¾ inches by 48 inches;  $9,200.

Autograph letter; signed ”Go: Washington,” sent from Mount Vernon; Dec. 29th, 1783; confirming receipt of stagecoach shipment;  $16,100.        

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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