November 28, 2013

I recently travelled to Washington, DC. I was again reminded of the grandeur of a capital city and how well the Americans celebrate their past, Founding Fathers, and assorted heroes. American myth making can be beguiling. I had the opportunity to tour the Capital Building and George Washington’s ancestral home, Mount Vernon. It was at Mount Vernon that I came to know a little bit about Washington’s will.

When the Capital Building was constructed it was built with a crypt (a tomb if you like) for Washington’s body to lie in perpetual state for the king that never was. The crypt is below the great dome or rotunda of the Capital Building and lays vacant to this day. When Washington died his will stated that he should be buried at his beloved Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon is located just south of Washington on the bucolic shores of the Potomac River in Virginia. The views from the main “plantation house” are spectacular as the wide Potomac, an important commercial thoroughfare in its day, reaches north to Washington and Baltimore and south to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. Washington was reputedly an astute businessman and Mount Vernon covered 8000 acres and was home to over 300 slaves (a cloud on Washington’s otherwise celebrated character). Every December close to 150 hogs were slaughtered to make pork, bacon and Martha Washington’s famous smoked ham, which she apparently liked to give as gifts.

When Washington died he wanted to be buried at Mount Vernon and was. However, Congress approached Martha and asked if the body could be moved to the waiting crypt. Martha said “yes”, as long as she was buried next to her beloved husband; Congress agreed. However, after Martha died, the family refused to move Washington’s body. Congress persisted, but to no avail. Ultimately, Virginia passed a law that Washington’s body could not be moved and his grave remains at Mount Vernon. In this case, a testamentary wish prevailed.

In his will, which Washington drafted without assistance, he provided generously for Martha, which was unusual at the time; the common practice was to restrict a widow’s interest in her husband’s estate. Washington died without issue. It is surmised that he was infertile as a result of being stricken with smallpox as a young man while in the Caribbean. However, Washington freed his slaves on his death and instructed his executors to care for their wellbeing. Regrettably, Washington’s nephew inherited Mount Vernon and brought his own slaves.

Happy Litigating.