After the death of George Washington in 1799 and his wife Martha in 1802, their home, Mount Vernon, was passed down through the family. By the late 1840’s the home was owned by John Augustine Washington and had fallen into great disrepair. One observer wrote that the once-impressive mansion was “dilapidated and decaying … overgrown with briars … a scene of wreck and waste.” John A. Washington did not have the financial resources to restore his ancestral home to pristine condition. Congress had petitioned several times to purchase Mount Vernon, but was unable to appropriate the funds necessary to meet the selling price.
In 1844 Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, featured engravings of the home’s Great Hall and Great Entrance Hall in the magazine. Reporter Robert Criswell, Jr. was so captivated by the illustrations he made a trip to Mount Vernon and wrote an article on the home for the Lady’s Book. As she reviewed Criswell’s manuscript, Hale was appalled by the reported condition of the home of the “Father of our Country.” The owner, John A. Washington, was considering the sale of Mount Vernon, but no buyer – including the U.S. Congress – came forward with an offer.
The following year, Anne Pamela Cunningham, a South Carolina woman who had suffered serious injuries in a horseback riding accident and was an invalid, was told by her mother of seeing Mount Vernon as she passed by it on a steamboat on the Potomac River. The daughter was so moved by her mother’s account of the disrepair at Mount Vernon that she wrote an impassioned letter to the Charleston, South Carolina Mercury where she appealed to the women of the South to save the First President’s home before it became completely derelict. Cunningham’s letter created interest in the cause and the Mount Vernon Association was quickly formed with her as the president.
In 1855 the Association approached two publications for help with fund raising communications: The Southern Literary Messenger for the South, and Godey’s Lady’s Book for the North. For the Lady’s Book part, Sarah Josepha Hale, as editor, was an enthusiastic supporter saying that she was committed, “in this great effort of national patriotism.” In addition to supporting the legacy of George Washington, Hale also recognized that the joint efforts of the North and South might help ameliorate the mounting tensions between the two regions in the mid 1800’s.
Hale wrote in the Lady’s Book: “We want contributions from every section – we want the daughters of the North to come, with rich gifts and join their sisters of the South, as the brave patriots of both regions united in the glorious War of the Revolution. Washington’s fame belongs to his whole country — his name is the holy cement of our Union.” Month after month, Sarah Josepha Hale reported the progress of the fund raising and urged membership subscriptions from all readers of the magazine.
In January 1856, the Virginia State Legislature passed a bill to incorporate the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Hale also enlisted the support of orator Edward Everett (whose speech preceded Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg in 1863) to give talks throughout the country to raise funds for Mount Vernon. And, despite starts and stops on purchase negotiations with John A. Washington, Hale continued to raise funds for Mount Vernon with editorials in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Edward Everett also continued to raise funds with his speaking tours, eventually raising seventy thousand dollars for the cause. Finally, in March 1860, Hale could report in the Lady’s Book: “Mount Vernon now belongs to the American nation.” The transaction for the purchase of Mount Vernon was final and an extensive restoration plan was being formulated for the house and grounds.
Unfortunately, the other goal of Sarah Josepha Hale in saving Mount Vernon – cooperation between North and South –was not sustained. In the year following the purchase of Mount Vernon, Anne Pamela Cunningham’s home state of South Carolina had seceded from the Union, and on April 12, 1861 the American Civil War began after a clash at Fort Sumter off the coast of that state.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Source from: The Better Angels: Five Women Who Changed Civil War America, Robert C. Plumb, University of Nebraska Press, 2020. Sarah Josepha Hale: A New England Pioneer, Sherbrooke Rogers, Thompson & Rutter, 1985.