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Saving Mount Vernon

If history has taught us anything it’s that it takes a woman to get the job done! That has certainly been the case in the collector world as we discover in this issue dedicated to “Patronesses of History;” women whose personal collections, preservationist outlook, and philanthropy seeded some of the greatest museum collections in this country.

One of the country’s earliest role models for women such as  Anna Safley Houston, Electra Havemeyer Webb, Florence Griswold, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Abby Aldridge Rockefeller, and Margaret Woodbury Strong –  the six women profiled in this month’s issue – is Ann Pamela Cunningham, whose pioneering efforts in the field of preservation set an important precedent in our country about collecting and preserving our history in its many ways and forms. There is no doubt that this seemingly mild­-mannered lady from South Carolina recognized the untapped power and determination of American women early on, enlisting their support as members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in undertaking the country’s first and greatest historical preservation project of the time, Mount Vernon.

In 1840, John Augustine Washington III became the last Washington family member to inherit Mount Vernon, the family estate that belonged to his ancestors, George and Martha Washington.

John Augustine III quickly realized that the deteriorating Mount Vernon estate was a far cry from the plantation his great-great uncle George Washington once presided over. His primary means of income came from wheat and potato production, woodcutting, selling enslaved people and outsourcing enslaved labor, collecting land rents, and his herring operation on the Potomac River. However, soil degradation, poor harvests, inclement weather, and the devastation of crops by insects and pests limited his agricultural returns.

While he managed to slow Mount Vernon’s financial decline, these endeavors were not enough to stop the downward spiral. In addition to facing these hardships, John Augustine III also experienced constant interruptions by sightseers, many of whom wanted to meet the living descendant of George Washington, see the mansion, and ask questions about Washington’s life. He attempted to sell the property to both the federal government and the state of Virginia, but both bodies were deeply mired in sectional and political partisanship to take him up on the opportunity to preserve the Founding Father’s homestead.

In 1853, Louisa Bird Cunningham was traveling on the Potomac River and passed by Mount Vernon. Struck by its appearance, and fearing that it would soon be lost to the nation for lack of upkeep, Cunningham wrote a letter to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham. In the letter, she commented that if the men of the United States would not save the home of its greatest citizen, perhaps it should be the responsibility of the women. These words galvanized her daughter into action.

Initially writing under the nom de plume, “A Southern Matron,” Ann Pamela Cunningham challenged first the women of the South, and later the women of the entire country, to save the home of George Washington. After convincing John Augustine Washington III to sell the property, Cunningham and the organization she founded, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, set out to raise $200,000, or $5.7 million today, to purchase the mansion and two hundred acres. A huge challenge at that time, especially for a woman, but Miss Cunningham knew to be successful in purchasing Mount Vernon, she needed to find a way for her ladies to work with men, not around them.

Cunningham structured the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association as an organization run by and entirely comprised of women, with never more than one Mount Vernon Lady representing a given state at the same time. Even today, the organization thrives under this same women-led structure.

What kind of woman constituted a Mount Vernon Lady? Said Cunningham, “She shall be of a family whose social position would command the confidence of the State, and enable her to enlist the aid of persons of the widest influence…She must be able to command considerable leisure, as the duties will require much time until stipulated funds are raised. She should also possess liberal patriotism, energy of character, cultivation of mind, and such a combination of mental powers as will insure that she shall wisely and judiciously exercise the power of voting in Grand Council upon the future guardianship and improvement of Mount Vernon.”

In short, Cunningham was looking for women who could get the job done!

Each “Lady Manager” member was required to form clubs in their state to help raise money.  For each member’s one dollar donation, a gilt-framed copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington was sent to the club. Interested parties with greater wherewithal could receive an illuminated copy of the first president’s Farewell Address in return for a $10 donation. The Association also maintained subscription books of contributors, including ones who gave at least a dollar.

Concerts, dramatic readings, plays, tableaux, fairs, and festivals also proved to be effective fundraising vehicles. A “Ladies’ Strawberry Feast” in Alabama brought in $334. An open house at the home of Vice Regent, Octavia Walton Le Vert for Alabama, netted Mount Vernon $700. Alabama journalist, politician, and diplomat William Lowndes Yancey, who was a first cousin of Miss Cunningham, lectured widely on behalf of the Association, ultimately raising thousands of dollars.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association campaign was astonishingly successful. Just nine months after signing the purchase agreement, John Augustine Washington III had received a total of $85,000—almost half the purchase price. By February 1859, two additional payments brought the total to $100,000. Ten months later, the Association was within $6,666.66 of paying off the entire amount. In June 1860, the MVLA officially took possession of Mount Vernon.

Thanks to Ann Pamela Cunningham, the dedicated Ladies of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and the thousands of members and donors over the past 164 years who supported their mission, Mount Vernon is the most popular historic estate in America, welcoming an average one million guests each year and scholars from throughout the world who want to know more about George Washington and the founding of our country.