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George Washington's Birthplace in 1873 by R. B. E.

Was George Washington born in Great Britain or America? Absurd as this question must sound to an American, it has been gravely discussed within the last few months by a writer in the London Notes and Queries, who has the effrontery to say that Washington's own brief assertion in a letter to the effect that he was born in Virginia cannot be conclusive. "No man's unsupported testimony," he adds, "as to the place of his birth would be taken in evidence in a court of justice, for his knowledge of the event must necessarily be from hearsay or from records." This is silly enough. I did not see the whole article, or learn by what arguments the writer endeavored to substantiate his doubts, if he really had any, as to the true birthplace of the Pater Patriae, but, feeling some interest in the matter, I cut out the slip containing the quotation just given, and enclosed it in a letter to a prominent gentleman living in Westmoreland not far from Wakefield, the estate on which the birthplace—or rather the site of it—is situated, with a request that he would reply to it. He did so promptly and almost indignantly.

"I am amazed," says he, "at the contents of the printed slip you send me. That any man of ordinary intelligence, living within the bounds of civilization, could be ignorant of or doubt the fact that General Washington was born in America, I did not for a moment suppose." He goes on to say that if Washington's biography, written by so many competent hands, and founded upon sources the most authentic, and particularly the Lives of Marshall, Sparks and Irving, were not sufficient to convince incredulity itself, he is at a loss to know what would. Certainly, he would not attempt the task himself. In addition to the well-known biographies, traditions and memoranda attest the fact beyond the possibility of enlightened doubt. Other credible and corroborative records are not wanting. "Had the question," he concludes, "been asked of Dr. Livingstone by some savage in the depths of the African jungles, it would not have been surprising; but to come from a writer in London, it is inexpressibly marvelous, and looks like a relapse into barbarism."

Among the memoranda alluded to is a fac-simile of the entry of the birth of Washington in the Bible of his mother, which is given in Howe's Historical Collections of Virginia, as follows:

"George Washington son to Augustine and Mary his Wife was Born 11'th Day of February 173-1/2 about 10 in the Morning and was Baptized the 3'th (sic) of April following M'r Beverley Whiting and Cap'n Christopher Brooks godfathers and M'rs Mildred Gregory God-mother."

There are no marks of punctuation, and Howe states that the original entry is supposed to have been made by Washington's mother. If so, the handwriting, not very unlike Washington's own, is unusually masculine, compact, even and clear for a woman's. Howe's book was published in 1836. At that time the old family Bible, a much dilapidated quarto with the title-page missing, and covered with the striped Virginia cloth so common in old days, was in the possession of George W. Bassett, Esq., of Farmington, Hanover county, who married a grand-niece of Washington. At that time, too, the birthplace, which had been destroyed previous to the Revolution, was much more plainly marked than it is now. From its associations, and from its natural beauties as well, the place was doubly interesting. Standing half a mile from the junction of Pope's Creek with the Potomac River, it commanded a view of the Maryland shore and of the course of the Potomac for many miles. The house was a low-pitched, single-storied frame dwelling, with four rooms on the first floor, and a huge chimney at each end on the outside—the style of the better class of houses of those days. A stone, placed there to mark its site by G.W.P. Custis, bore the simple inscription:

"HERE, ON THE 11TH OF FEBRUARY (O.S.), 1732, GEORGE WASHINGTON WAS BORN."

Such was its appearance in 1834 or '35, when Howe visited it. Its present condition may be gathered from what the writer of the letter in response to the London querist has to say about the site itself, that being all that is left of a place so memorable and so deserving of perpetuation:

"I have had no opportunity to obtain the sketch I promised you. Indeed, there is virtually no material to make a sketch of. The birthplace is now simply an old field lying waste, with indistinct vestiges of a human habitation. An old chimney stands which belonged to an outhouse (kitchen or laundry), some remains of a cellar, and the foundations of a house in which tradition states Washington was born. There was a stone slab, with a simple inscription, placed on the spot some sixty years ago by G. W: P. Custis, to denote the place, but it was long ago removed from its original position, mutilated and broken, so that only a fragment remains."

That a place of such interest—one might call it sacred—should be left to decay and obliteration is no new thing in Virginia. Enemies might well declare that neglect of her mighty dead is characteristic of the old commonwealth. The truth is, she has a great many dead to care for, and of late years all her time has been absorbed in the care of her living. But something has been done, or attempted to be done, to rescue Washington's birthplace from oblivion. As far back as 1858 an act was passed by the General Assembly of Virginia, accepting from Lewis Washington a grant of the "site of the birthplace of George Washington, and the home and graves of his progenitors in America," and appropriating five thousand dollars "to enclose the same in an iron fence," etc. Hon. Henry A. Wise, governor of Virginia at the time this act was passed, entered with zeal and alacrity upon the work, the execution of which was entrusted to him by the Legislature—went in person to Westmoreland, examined carefully the sites, negotiated with the owner of the adjacent farm for right of way, adopted a plan for the enclosures and tablets, and began a correspondence with mechanics and artisans at the North with a view to the speedy completion of the work, and—just then his term expired, the war soon followed, and the matter was of course dropped.

The money appropriated, together with the accrued interest, is now in the treasury of Virginia, and although Governor Walker in his late message did not bring the subject to the attention of the Legislature, the long-delayed work will be consummated sooner or later, and "a neat iron fence" with a few plain slabs will be erected on the hallowed spot. But it strikes the present writer that five thousand dollars, or even ten thousand dollars, form rather a small sum for such an object, and that "a neat iron fence" is not exactly the thing that the place and its memories demand. But not a dollar more may be expected of Virginia at this time. She owes too much, and has too little. If one of the many Northern gentlemen who are lavishing their hundreds of thousands on colleges and other charities would come to Westmoreland and put something a little better than a "neat iron fence" around the birthplace of Washington, he would do a noble deed for himself and for both sections of his lately estranged country.