The incredible stories of how women saved Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s crazy ideas both lost and regained Monticello.
Memorial Day is, obviously, a time to honor dead soldiers, so I’m not publishing this on Memorial Day. But the question of how to honor fallen heroes (not just soldiers), and what to do to preserve their memories, is ever pertinent. I happened to come across two great stories this weekend, about two groups of people who were rather unappreciated in their days, who nonetheless worked tirelessly to preserve the memories of great Americans (Jefferson and Washington)—people they believed deserved to be remembered for their work preserving the blessings of liberty to future generations. And these particular stories don’t concern Jefferson’s or Washington’s political accomplishments, but rather their homes and the legacies they left behind from their personal as much as their political lives.
How the Women of the South Saved Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon’s legacy was the work of a great man. Preserving it was the work of many great women.
The Mount Vernon estate had been in George Washington’s family since 1674. The first president had grown up there, and managed the classic federal-style house since he inherited it in 1754 (ownership became official in 1761). He had put a great deal of work into improving both the house and the estate, but after his death in 1799, both started to go downhill. His descendents didn’t have his success or his management skills, and by 1853 had given up on the place.
But not everybody had. Ann Pamela Cunningham, a South Carolinian who had grown up on a plantation herself, was shocked and saddened when on a family sail up the Potomac River she saw the state of Mount Vernon. She asked herself, “Why was it the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
She sent a letter to a Charleston newspaper in December 1853, appealing to the women of the South to save the estate, and in 1854 founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. By 1858, despite tensions along the Potomac just prior to the Civil War, she had raised enough money to try to buy the house. John Washington, George’s great-grandnephew, refused. Undeterred, Cunningham met with John’s wife, and Washington promptly sold the house for $200,000. Thousands of people, including President James Buchanan, donated to fund the final purchase, and the Association took possession of the nearly empty house in February 1860.
Resisting suggestions to turn the estate into a memorial park, Cunningham wanted to restore and preserve it as it had been in Washington’s day, an unusual idea at the time. With an impressive campaign of fundraising and PR, the ladies were able to raise large sums of money and jumpstart the historic preservation movement.
Over time, as restoration techniques have improved and the furniture and décor collection has grown, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has been able to very closely recreate the house’s appearance in 1799, the year Washington died. Today, the Association, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, still manages the estate, governed by a Board of Regents (all women) from almost 30 states. It employs 500 staff and 400 volunteers, and has preserved approximately 500 of the original 8,000 acres of the estate. Mount Vernon is the most popular historic estate in the country, seeing an average of a million guests a year (over 80 million total). The story of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association remains a case study in effective grassroots conservation.
How Religious Liberty Saved Monticello
Thomas Jefferson thought the Constitution should be rewritten every 19 years. He believed that the earth belonged to the living, that each generation owed little to those before or after it. In an irony, he lived as though he believed it, which allowed his children to prove him wrong.
When Jefferson died in 1826, he left over $100,000 in debts with which the next generation of his family had to deal. They were forced to sell most of his eclectic collection of furniture and artwork, thousands of acres of his estate, and, in 1831, his beloved home, Monticello.
Jefferson had designed Monticello himself; he had called it his “essay in architecture,” and the home was full of the Greek, French, and Roman influences that had shaped his political philosophy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would later say that he had never seen a historic home that was such a perfect expression of the personality of its builder.
But yet another piece of Jefferson’s legacy, beyond his culturally anarchic conception of society, would save the historic house. Commodore Uriah Levy was the first Jew to serve a career as an officer in the United States Navy and a passionate believer in the freedom of religion that America had offered his family. He was grateful to Jefferson for the role he had played in preserving that landmark liberty. Uriah had gone on to a successful career in real estate speculation, and when the Marquis de Lafayette inquired after Monticello, Levy found that it was in disrepair. He bought it in 1836, and restored it.
The Levy family briefly lost control of the estate after Uriah’s death, at which point the house once again deteriorated. But then, the not-accidentally named Jefferson Levy, Uriah’s nephew, regained possession in 1879. Levy was also a speculator, and a three-term New York congressman. Despite facing anti-Semitic outrage, Levy put hundreds of thousands of dollars into restoring the house to its former glory. All in all the Levy owned the home for nearly 90 years—far longer than Jefferson—in explicit tribute to its owner, transferring it to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1923. The nonprofit continues to operate the home as a museum, historic site, and research center to this day—a tribute to the man whose personal convictions, played out in his life and politics, had both lost the house and regained it.
For these stories, I’m indebted to historian Marc Leepson, for his book “Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built” (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2003); and to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for the depth of detail on the Mount Vernon website, and the National Building Museum and National Women’s History museum for the fantastic information they’ve published on Mount Vernon and Ann Pamela Cunningham. I encountered these stories in the course of some research for Philanthropy Roundtable, which will own the copyright to the finished versions of these stories.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.