The founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA), Ann Pamela Cunningham created the organization responsible for saving and restoring Mount Vernon. In doing so, she established one of the earliest preservation and heritage organizations in the United States. Cunningham led the organization as Regent from its inception in 1853 until she stepped down in 1874.
Cunningham was born in 1816 in Laurens County, South Carolina on Rosemont, her family's estate. Her parents Louisa and Robert were well entrenched in the upper-class societies of South Carolina, as well as Philadelphia and Alexandria. Cunningham's upbringing included every refinement deemed necessary for a young lady of the upper class; she received an education both at home and at fashionable boarding schools.
Among other activities during her adolescence, Cunningham was particularly fond of horseback riding. When she was in her late teens, Cunningham was thrown from a horse. While the exact details of her injuries remain unknown, the accident caused chronic pain for the majority of her life. To ease her pain, Cunningham received regular treatments from Dr. Hugh Hodge, a specialist in Philadelphia. Her mother regularly accompanied her to the city and returned to South Carolina by boat. One such voyage in 1853 inspired Ann Pamela Cunningham to undertake the work of her life.
To return to South Carolina, Cunningham's mother boarded a steamer on the Potomac River. Awoken in the dead of night at the sound of the ship's bell, Mrs. Cunningham witnessed the state of Mount Vernon as the ship steamed by. What she saw inspired her to write her daughter, "I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it? It does seem such a blot on our country!"1 Cunningham was inspired by her mother's sentiments and took up the cause of purchasing and restoring Mount Vernon.
Both Congress and John Augustine Washington III initially scoffed at the idea early in Cunningham's fundraising stages—tensions that would eventually erupt in the Civil War were already manifesting, and the country was in the midst of a financial panic. New hope arose when Charleston lawyer James Louis Petigru came to the Association's aid. Petigru drafted a new charter for the MVLA, which was passed by the Virginia Legislature. Cunningham and her constituents argued in favor of a second bill urging the state to acquire Mount Vernon (with the Association's funds), but the bill failed to pass in the Virginia Legislature.
Not to be dissuaded, Cunningham appealed to Washington. The MVLA no longer sought to act as a mediator between Washington and the state; with Cunningham at the helm as Regent, the Association would purchase Mount Vernon itself. Though Washington. was initially unwilling to sell the estate unless Virginia or the United States was interested, he subsequently wrote, "Under the circumstances, and believing that after the two highest powers in the country, the women of the land will probably be the safest, as they will certainly be the purest, guardians of a national shrine, I am willing so far to comply with your request."2 Cunningham had earned the owner's blessing, but now needed to continue raising funds.
By 1858, Cunningham and her Vice Regents had raised enough money to offer a down payment of $18,000. On April 6, 1858, Cunningham, Washington, two vice-regents, and the Association's lawyers met in Richmond to sign the official terms of the transaction. According to the contract, the Association had four years to pay off the remaining $182,000 balance, due February 22, 1862. After delivering the down payment, Cunningham busied herself with selecting additional Vice-Regents, raising funds, and publishing The Mount Vernon Record, a newspaper that chronicled the efforts of the Association and printed the names of every monetary contributor.
With Washington's blessing, Cunningham arranged for the first restoration efforts on the property in 1859. However, the nation’s political climate halted the Association's plans. From 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War raged near and around Mount Vernon. Originally planning to stay on the grounds, Cunningham retreated back to her South Carolina home, both for her health and safety and at the insistence of her aging mother. During her absence from the estate, Cunningham's health continued to decline. However, Cunningham mustered the strength to travel north and address the first meeting of the assembled Vice-Regents in 1866.
While in Washington, Cunningham met with members of Congress to pursue a bill of indemnity for the use of the Mount Vernon steamboat during the Civil War. The steamboat, which furnished the majority of the Association’s income, was used for the transport of soldiers and supplies, culminating in a mounting loss of income for the Association during the War. In 1869, Congress approved Cunningham’s claim and granted the Association $7,000.
Cunningham's success in Congress was her last major victory as Regent of the MVLA. With her health in serious decline, Cunningham announced her resignation in 1874, exhorting her compatriots: "Ladies, the Home of Washington is in your charge; see to it that you keep it the Home of Washington. Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress!"3 With her final charges to the Association she dedicated her life to foster, Cunningham returned to her home in South Carolina where she passed away in 1875.
John D. Rockeller, Jr. Library Fellow
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
1. Quoted in Elswyth Thane, Mount Vernon is Ours: The Story of its Preservation (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1966), 16.
2. Ibid., 72.
3. Quoted in The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Historical Sketch of Ann Pamela Cunningham (New York: The Marion Press, 1911), 48.
Johnson, Gerald W. Mount Vernon: The Story of a Shrine: An Account of the Rescue and Rehabilitation of Washington's Home by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. New York: Random House, 1953.
West, Patricia. Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1999.