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Building Mount Vernon

"If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect, or they may be atheists." George Washington, 1784

Over the four decades he spent building Mount Vernon, George Washington struggled to acquire the necessary materials and skilled workmen to carry out his vision. With few manufacturing operations in the colonies, Washington was forced to import a wide variety of specialized building materials to complement the more basic items like lumber, bricks, and mortar, that could be acquired from the plantation or purchased from local suppliers. Washington employed an array of workmen to carry out his projects. These included skilled Mount Vernon slaves who worked as carpenters, painters, and brickmakers, as well as hired white craftsmen.

Lund Washington: For almost a decade Lund Washington served as the Mount Vernon plantation manager. During the extended period when George Washington was away during the Revolutionary War, his responsibilities increased to include overseeing a variety of construction projects. It was he who was called upon to carry on the second major expansion of the mansion that George Washington had embarked upon just before he was called away to the war in 1775. Lund apparently did not share his cousin’s relish for building, and he seems to have been especially frustrated by the wartime shortages of materials and manpower. George Washington kept in close contact with his manager through weekly correspondence, and their letters back and forth include detailed instructions and advice on the one hand and questions and progress reports on the other.

Thomas Green: For Washington, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of his workers appears to have been an ongoing challenge. The behavior of Thomas Green, a skilled “joiner and house carpenter” who served as “overlooker” of the slave carpenters for six years, typified some of the problems Washington found so exasperating. Green’s fondness for drink, his stubbornly independent nature, and his tendency to move from one project to another without finishing, often left Washington fuming over Green’s idleness and carelessness. How did Thomas Green manage to keep his job? A shortage of men with his high level of skill certainly worked in his favor. In addition, Green had married Sally Bishop, the daughter of Washington’s personal servant, Thomas Bishop. Convinced that Sally and her children would suffer if her husband were fired, Washington’s loyalty to the Bishop family compelled him to keep Green employed.

Isaac: Skilled in carpentry and charged with considerable responsibility, Isaac occupied a unique place in the Mount Vernon labor structure. While the great majority of slaves worked as field laborers, many were trained in a variety of building trades and plantation crafts such as brickmaking, carpentry, painting and plastering, spinning and weaving, and blacksmithing. Isaac was in charge of the carpentry shop, which called for both turning skills and bench carpentry. He made spokes for wheels, axletrees for carts, handles for chisels, and fingers for cradling. Isaac also made and repaired sills, plates, posts, and rafters for building frames. By the 1790s, Isaac was directing the other carpenters in erecting simple buildings.

William Sears: English woodcarver William Sears arrived in the colonies in 1752, at the age of 20. He may have been a convicted felon, sentenced to seven years’ indentured servitude for stealing clothes. George Washington’s neighbor, George Mason, bought the indenture and Sears spent five years creating brilliant ornamental carvings throughout the interior of Mason’s home, Gunston Hall. By 1772, with a wife and child, Sears had become a respected, independent artisan. Two years later, he was commissioned by Washington to carve a chimneypiece for Mount Vernon’s small dining room. Sears may have provided the design, an illustration from Swan’s pattern book, The British Architect. The final result was magnificent, and is considered by many to be the finest single piece of decoration at Mount Vernon.