George Washington once compared Mount Vernon to a well resorted tavern and indeed his home never ceased to be a mecca for visitors, drawn by curiosity or by reverence for its illustrious owner. Washington's nephew Bushrod Washington, who inherited the Mansion and four thousand acres after the death of Martha Washington, was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and his duties often kept him away from Mount Vernon. He died in 1829, bequeathing the Mansion and twelve hundred acres to his nephew John Augustine Washington who survived him by only three years. In 1830, his widow conveyed the estate to their son, John Augustine Washington, Jr., the last Washington family owner of the estate.
For a long time Mount Vernon's relative geographic isolation restricted the number of visitors to the Estate, but by the mid-nineteenth century roads had been improved, steamboats were plying the Potomac, and the population of the country increased significantly. The increase in number of travelers to Mount Vernon emphasized the need for its preservation. Further, by this point the Estate was agriculturally unproductive and the residents found their position untenable. John Augustine Washington, Jr. tried to interest both the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia in acquiring and preserving the historic group of buildings, though without success.
In 1853, Louisa Bird Cunningham was traveling on the Potomac River and passed by Mount Vernon in the moonlight. 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, Cunningham 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 had founded, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, raised $200,000 to purchase the mansion and two hundred acres. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association took over operation of the estate in 1860.
John Augustine Washington
One of the first tasks facing the group was the need to restore the mansion that had fallen into disrepair, or at least stabilizing its condition to prevent further deterioration. The need for this work was readily apparent. A group of visitors in May of 1860 described the state of the Mansion, explaining: "Some fifty rods from the tomb is the house of Washington; this is now in a dilapidated condition; the broad portico in front, is temporarily propped up to keep it from falling; even the stone floor under the portico gives evidence of crumbling back to dust."1
Ann Pamela Cunningham
Restoration began immediately and the Estate was opened to the public. Since that time, the Association has owned and maintained Mount Vernon under a charter granted by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The membership of the Association consists of a Regent and Vice Regents representing many of the states. The Regent, who serves as chair, is elected from among the Vice Regents for a limited term.
By 1862, the writer of an article about Mount Vernon in a Vermont newspaper could report that in the two years since the estate came under the wing of the Association, "a new and very good wharf has been made, the tomb repaired, the mansion and out-building thoroughly put in order...The object has been, not to modernize and embellish Mount Vernon, but to make it look as probably it did in the hands of the thrifty and order-loving old General."2
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association was the first national historic preservation organization and is the oldest women's patriotic society in the United States. Its pioneering efforts in the field of preservation set an important precedent and have served as a model for many subsequent endeavors.