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The Unique History of Philanthropy at Mount Vernon

Wed, 01/18/2006

Ann Pamela Cunningham launched America’s first nationwide preservation campaign in 1853 with her urgent appeal to the women of America to buy and renovate the home of George Washington. The idea that a small group of women could successfully raise $200,000 was believed impossible by many, including Mount Vernon’s owner, John Augustine Washington III. Cunningham set out to prove him wrong – and told him as much in a December 1853 letter, declaring that ladies would “rise up by the thousands, and pour their offerings upon his tomb, that it might be preserved forever as a ‘sacred spot’ – not only to American hearts, but to all the world, who might seek the shrine of pure patriotism, and pure greatness!”

The Key to Philanthropy

Following Cunningham’s call for contributions in the Charleston Mercury and subsequent newspapers, donations began pouring in and a number of societies came into existence - principally in the south - which actively collected funds. Cunningham created the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union in 1854 to centralize the fundraising efforts.

A key component to the initial success of the Association was its structure, a format which has since been duplicated by other historic organizations. Cunningham stated:

“The Association is strictly national. It is under the management of a Regent and Vice Regents, to be selected, one, from every State of the Union. Every citizen, irrespective of age or sex, by the subscription of $1.00 can become a member, and one of the purchasers of Mount Vernon.”

Appointing a Vice Regent from each state provided an extensive national network for fundraising that began at the local level. This targeted philanthropic approach gave each state a sense of ownership of Mount Vernon, creating, in fact, a type of competitive camaraderie as each state sought to prove its patriotism and devotion to George Washington. When, for example, Missouri’s legislature authorized a $2,000 donation to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1859, it was proclaimed: “[Missouri], young as she is, with a gushing, energetic patriotism and delicacy of sentiment, that makes her a bright example to her older sisters, claims it as her privilege to aid in honoring the memory of our national father.”

Cunningham selected influential women to serve on the board with the unprecedented mandate that raising money was a primary responsibility. These ladies understood their role as a conduit between their states and the national effort, and they took their responsibilities seriously, appointing lady managers for every county, town, or village in their states in order to efficiently collect funds. One dramatic appeal by the lady manager of Halifax, North Carolina, sought to encourage mass donations from Halifax County:

“The electric spark has crossed the mighty Ocean and awakened a sympathetic feeling in parts of England, Scotland, France, and even from some of the little Isles of the Sea. A generous response has reached us. From Maine to California there seems to have been almost a universal desire to assist in this work, I say almost, for in looking over the “Mount Vernon Board” I find one blank. Sisters of Halifax let the blush of shame mantle our cheeks! North Carolina is not there!”

Grassroots Fundraising

The Vice Regents actively appealed to their states for donations, and thousands of individuals contributed money to save Mount Vernon, from President James Buchanan to schoolchildren to authors such as Washington Irving. Newsboys of New York City collected their pennies and donated $4.18, and scores of other Americans added what they could afford, frequently with symbolic donations on significant dates like the Fourth of July.

Outreach to some groups and organizations such as Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges, fire companies, state legislators, infantry companies, private and public schools, newspaper editors, and typographical societies yielded ongoing, regular collections. In 1859, the crew of the U.S. Steamship Savannah donated $150 “while the ship was far away on the central American station, whence the warm heart of the sailor turned fondly to ‘sweet home’ and the Mecca of America, and longed to testify by acts his love and veneration for both.”

The Association thrived on donations from civic groups and individuals because they affirmed the board’s belief that Washington, and consequently his home, belonged to the nation as a whole and should be saved by the entire country. The Association’s goal was not to privately possess Mount Vernon, but rather to own it on behalf of the country and to open it to the public. The ladies therefore focused on grassroots efforts and sought to have a broad base of support bolstered by individual Americans donating such humble sums as $1.00 each.

Commemorative Items

Understanding the true national scope of the movement and the profound way Washington, his character and accomplishments resonated with people, the Association began marketing commemorative items. Printed promotional materials sold in great quantities included copies of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington, which was advertised in a newspaper insert entitled, “Aid to the Mount Vernon Fund, For the Purchase and Restoration of Washington's Home, Stuart's Gold-Mounted Oil Portrait of Washington,” ending with the motto, “Send for this Picture! Everybody should possess such an admirable portrait of the immortal Washington.” The price was $1.00.

Currier & Ives prints of George Washington, some of which were embossed with “In Aid of the MVLA,” lithographs of Mount Vernon, and a version of Washington’s “Farewell Address” were also sold typically for $1.00 each, further underscoring the belief in grassroots fundraising and the desire that all Americans contribute to the cause.


Pamphlets of speeches about saving Mount Vernon were also printed and distributed. Vice Regents solicited residents of their respective states with pamphlets, broadsides, newspaper articles, and circulars, many of which brought a local angle to the campaign by listing as supporters prominent people in the state. These materials did much to convey the full spirit of the national movement to the public.

The Mount Vernon Record, an illustrated magazine published monthly from July 1858 to June 1860, kept subscribers informed of the fundraising progress. “Devoted to the Purchase of the Home and Grave of Washington,” the Record listed all financial contributions and featured “a complete Washingtoniana” with historical sketches and anecdotes. A subscription cost $1.00 per month with proceeds benefiting Mount Vernon.

Independent magazines and newspapers like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper also assisted the Association by bringing the work of the ladies to a wide audience. In Iowa, the Vice Regent reported that “the press has liberally seconded the efforts of these patriotic ladies; devoting considerable space to the interests of the Association . . .” Some publications even accepted donations on behalf of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Arguably the Association’s best fundraising and public relations effort was covered in Harper’s Magazine in March of 1860, one month after the Association took possession of Mount Vernon. Ann Pamela Cunningham had invited members of Congress to visit Mount Vernon and had included representatives of the press. The purpose was for the guests to testify to the country the need “to come forward and assist in placing that house and tomb of Washington, now the property of the citizens of the United States, in such order and keeping as is manifestly due to his memory and themselves.” Even though Mount Vernon had been purchased, fundraising continued in an effort to fund an endowment and to preserve and restore the site.

Celebrity Assistance

The visit by congressmen in 1860 certainly added an element of celebrity to Mount Vernon, but four years earlier there was one famous personality who impacted the Association’s efforts significantly more: Edward Everett of Boston, the most respected orator of his time. Everett’s resume was exceptionally distinguished: he had served as a member of Congress, governor of Massachusetts, minister to Great Britain, and president of Harvard University. His service as pastor of several churches added a sense of righteousness to his lectures, which were celebrated with great fanfare across the nation.

On George Washington’s birthday in 1856, Everett delivered a lecture entitled, “George Washington, Builder of the Union,” a topic fraught with deep meaning as the conflict between the North and South began to escalate. Seeing great potential to inspire thousands of Americans, Ann Pamela Cunningham persuaded Everett to adopt her cause and convinced this nineteenth-century celebrity to contribute indispensable financial assistance. Over the next three years, Everett not only delivered the Washington lecture 129 times, in almost every corner of the nation, but he donated all earnings from his presentations to Mount Vernon.

The campaign to save Mount Vernon soon became such a cause célèbre that the editors of the New York Ledger hired Everett to write a weekly column on American history. He agreed to a yearlong contract without compensation if the paper would contribute $10,000 to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. In the end, Everett’s efforts resulted in contributions totaling more than $69,000 -- greater than a third of Mount Vernon’s purchase price.

Fundraising Events

Although Everett was a fundraising force and the Vice Regents were quite skilled in their own capacity to raise funds, the ladies were forced to be creative in order to meet their financial goals. They initiated innovative programs and events which encouraged people across the country to hold their own fundraisers.

Women organized special events, many tied to Washington’s birthday or the Fourth of July, where guests paid for a festive meal, concert, or a grand ball. One such ball, hosted by Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, raised $4,000 and was attended by 10,000 people. These precursors to our modern black-tie fundraisers were usually touted as “in benefit to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.”

Benefits also included theatrical performances staged by famous actors like Edwin Booth and Laura Keene, who raised $500 for the purchase of Mount Vernon with money earned from an evening’s performance of “Our American Cousin” in 1858.

One of the more unusual fundraising appeals was recorded in an article entitled “Washington’s Smallest Female Foot:”

“Among other devices for securing donations, Mrs. Berghmann, the regent of the association [who succeeded Ann Pamela Cunningham], had one of her slippers trimmed so as to serve as a watch-case, and raffled for. She is of medium height and size, but has the prettiest foot of any lady in Washington, wearing No. 12 ½, misses; size, and the tiny slipper was much desired by those who purchased tickets.”

Due to revolutionary approaches to fundraising and an unprecedented national campaign, the Association paid for Mount Vernon in full on December 9, 1859, more than two years ahead of the purchase contract’s deadline, and took possession on the 128th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, February 22, 1860.

“Modernizing” Mount Vernon

The contributions of Edward Everett allowed the Association to purchase Mount Vernon in the nineteenth century, and significant donations continued to dramatically impact Mount Vernon in the twentieth century when technology gave rise to new opportunities.

In the 1920s, Henry Ford visited Mount Vernon and was struck by the threat fire posed to the wooden buildings. He presented Mount Vernon with a “motor-equipped chemical fire engine” in 1924, which he later replaced with an updated 1936 version. This led to the formation of a full-fledged Mount Vernon fire department, the installation of fire hydrants, and a constant upgrading of alarm systems.

Around the same time Ford stepped forward to protect Washington’s home, Thomas Edison proposed to personally install electricity in the Mansion. Edison offered to install a system powered by generator-fed storage batteries, at a cost of $3,325, with a “guarantee of absolute safety.” Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Vice Regent for California, paid for the installation and helped to convince other Vice Regents that electricity was a safer alternative to kerosene lamps and candles.

Almost 75 years after the contentious electrification of the Mansion, the Association elected to install a climate control system in 1998. The new system represented one of the most sophisticated, expensive and controversial efforts to provide an improved environment for furnishings without causing considerable harm to the structure. The Carrier Corporation contributed $300,000 to the project, as well as the expertise of engineer Charles Bullock, who addressed similar challenges when he designed a system at the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Critical Donations in Times of Need

In addition to contributing to general improvements and continuous preservation, donors have been moved to give generously to Mount Vernon during crucial times.

In 1887, Jay Gould, one of the wealthiest men in America, arrived at Mount Vernon for a visit. The director, Colonel Harrison Dodge, personally conducted the tour and mentioned to Gould that a 33-and-one-half-acre plot of land just yards from the site of Washington’s famous ha-ha wall on the north side of the Mansion was on the market, destined to be purchased by one of several developers eager to take advantage of this prime location on the banks of the Potomac River. By the time his tour was over, Gould had promised to purchase the land as a gift to the Association, which he did within weeks, thus protecting a stretch of field and forest where Washington’s cattle had grazed a century before.

Another potential menace to nearby land surfaced in 1954 when a sewage treatment and oil tank farm were proposed on the Maryland shore, threatening the pristine view directly across from Mount Vernon. Mrs. Frances Payne Bolton, Vice Regent for Ohio and U.S. Congresswoman, purchased the 485 acres herself in order to protect the Estate and its surroundings. She then organized and was elected president of the Accokeek Foundation, an organization which now protects thousands of acres in Maryland.

Statewide Initiatives

Mount Vernon’s more recent support is not just attributed to wealthy individuals. When thousands of visitors began to arrive at Mount Vernon via electric trolley during the first decades of the twentieth century, it quickly became apparent that the Estate needed an official entrance gate to handle the ever-increasing crowds. The citizens of Texas adopted the project under the leadership of Frances C. Maxey, Vice Regent for Texas. Schoolchildren donated nickels and dimes, while members of the Masonic lodges organized a grassroots effort that swept Texas, and in 1899 the new entry gate began to take shape.

One hundred years later, in 1989, Helen Sharp Anderson, Vice Regent for Texas, spearheaded a second statewide effort to refurbish the gate and modernize the interior with air-conditioning, enhanced security, and state-of-the-art computers for ticketing.

Similar statewide programs have resulted in the restoration of the cupola, a project funded by the residents and friends of the state of Massachusetts and led by former Regent Eugenia M. Seamans; the refurbishment of the wharf, supported by private donations from the state of Oregon under the direction of Regent Mabel L. Bishop; and the replacement of the Mansion’s roof, which involved the nationwide “Raise the Roof” campaign that sought a modest donation for each of the 25,344 shingles.

To Keep Him First

In April, 2002, Mount Vernon embarked on an unprecedented $85 million national public awareness campaign to restore the standing of the first president. The goal of this bold initiative is to close an alarming, growing information gap among Americans, particularly young people, about the nation’s greatest hero and most important leader in American history. Under the theme, George Washington: To Keep Him First, Mount Vernon will construct a new state-of-the-art Orientation Center, Education Center, and Museum on the grounds of the Estate.

A $15 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation in Las Vegas, Nevada, the largest in the 150-year history of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, has brought the campaign to almost 65 percent of its goal. Additional significant supporters include the Ford Motor Company Fund, The Mars Foundation and Family, The Vira I. Heinz Endowment, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Mrs. Stanley Gaines, The Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Smith, The F.M. Kirby Foundation, and others.

In addition to the support for the George Washington: To Keep Him First campaign, Mount Vernon continues to enjoy key financial assistance from foundations, corporations, and individual citizens from across the nation, allowing for extensive archaeological excavations, restoration of gardens and buildings, and the creation of new experiences like the George Washington: Pioneer Farmer site and George Washington’s Gristmill. This widespread support keeps Mount Vernon at the forefront of philanthropy and museum management, where it continues to serve as an organizational model after which many historic house museums have been patterned.