Thus far Congress has not seen fit to comply, nor does there seem to be any good reason why it should do so. The land cost Washington a mere bagatelle, it was lost through the neglect of himself and his executors, and not one of the persons who would benefit by such a subsidy from the public funds is his lineal descendant. As a mere matter of public policy and common sense it may well be doubted whether any claim upon government, no matter how just in itself, should be reimbursed beyond the third generation. The heirs urge in extenuation of the claim that Washington refused to accept any compensation for his Revolutionary services, but it is answered that it is hardly seemly for his grand nephews and grand nieces many times removed to beg for something that the Father of His Country himself rejected. One wonders whether the claimants would dare to press their claims in the presence of their great Kinsman himself!
VIRGINIA AGRICULTURE IN WASHINGTON’S DAY
The Virginia of George Washington’s youth and early manhood was an imperial domain reaching from Atlantic tidewater through a thousand leagues of forests, prairies and mountains “west and northwest” to the South Sea. Only a narrow fringe along the eastern coast was settled by white men; the remainder was a terra incognita into which Knights of the Golden Horseshoe and Indian traders had penetrated a short distance, bringing back stories of endless stretches of wolf-haunted woodland, of shaggy-fronted wild oxen, of saline swamps in which reposed the whitened bones of prehistoric monsters, of fierce savage tribes whose boast was of the number of scalps that swung in the smoke of their wigwams. Even as late as 1750 the fertile Shenandoah Valley beyond the Blue Ridge formed the extreme frontier, while in general the “fall line,” where the drop from the foothills to the coastal plain stops navigation, marked the limit of settlement.
At the time that Washington began to farm in earnest eastern Virginia had, however, been settled for one hundred fifty-two years. Yet the population was almost wholly rural. Williamsburg, the capital, was hardly more than a country village, and Norfolk, the metropolis, probably did not contain more than five thousand inhabitants. The population generally was so scattered that, as has been remarked, a man could not see his neighbor without a telescope or be heard by him without firing a gun.
A large part of the settled land was divided up into great estates, though there were many small farms. Some of these estates had been acquired for little or nothing by Cavalier favorites of the colonial governors. A few were perfectly enormous in size, and this was particularly the rule on the “Northern Neck,” the region in which Mount Vernon was situated. The holding of Lord Thomas Fairfax, the early friend and patron of Washington, embraced more than a score of modern counties and contained upward of five million acres. The grant had been made by Fairfax’s grandfather, Lord Culpeper, the coproprietor and Governor of Virginia.