WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("Go: Washington") TO SECRETARY OF WAR JAMES MCHENRY (1753-1816), Mount Vernon, 29 May 1797. 3 pages, 4to (9 3/8 x 7¾ in.), address panel on page 4 addressed in Washington's hand and franked "Free," with remnants of wax seal. In very fine condition.
"THE HISTORY OF A DAY" AT MOUNT VERNON, 1797: A RETIRED PRESIDENT DESCRIBES HIS DAILY DOMESTIC ROUTINE
A famous, frequently quoted letter of uniquely personal content. On 15 March 1797 Washington, like the mythical Cincinnatus returning from the wars to take up his plow, arrived by coach at "my long forsaken residence at Mount Vernon." Here, as one biographer puts it "fashioned from wood on land which his grandfather had purchased in 1674, was tangible continuity, the past moving with beauty into the present" (T.J. Flexner, George Washington and the New Nation: (1783-1793), p.10). Just two months after he stepped down as chief executive to return to his home on the Potomac, the former President, writing in a delightfully jocular tone, gives his young protege McHenry "the history of a day": a unique narrative of his typical day-to-day activities from sunrise to his retiring. He mentions the "wounds" of neglect suffered by his beloved residence during his eight-year absence, the admiring visitors who all too frequently call to pay their respects, and, after remarking that his busy routine leaves little time for reading, he alludes to his approaching death. The Irish-born McHenry, to whom Washington writes, had served as Washington's secretary and with Lafayette during the Revolution, and later represented Maryland in Congress. A dedicated Federalist, MacHenry was named Secretary of War by Washington in 1796 and continued in office under John Adams; during this period the younger man remained one of Washington's most reliable sources of information on affairs within the Adams administration.
"I am indebted to you for several unacknowledged letters," Washington writes, "but ne'er mind that, go on, as if you had them. You are at the source of information & can find many things to relate," he adds, self-mockingly, "while I have nothing to say that could either inform, or amuse a Secretary of War in Philadelphia."
Washington details his daily routine: "...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, & effect; and so on."
"The will account for your letters remaining so long unacknowledged; and having given you the history of a day, it will serve for a year; and I am persuaded you will not require a second edition of it: but 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." He appeds a brief note: "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 Go: Washington."
Published in Fitzpatrick, 35:455-456; quoted extensively in J.A. Carroll and M.W. Ashworth, George Washington: First in Peace, pp.464-465, in J.T. Flexner, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799), pp.340-341, and elsewhere.