Cunningham, Ann Pamela (1816–1875)
Cunningham, Ann Pamela (1816–1875)
American who, through her efforts to preserve George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, began the movement for historic preservation in the U.S. Name variations: (pseudonym) The Southern Matron. Born August 15, 1816, at "Rosemont," Laurens County, South Carolina; died at her home "Rosemont" on May 1, 1875; buried in the churchyard of the First Presbyterian Church; daughter of Robert and Louisa Cunningham (wealthy plantation owners); educated by a governess and at the Barhamville Institute near Columbia, South Carolina; never married.
Founded Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union (1853); completed purchase of Mount Vernon (February 22, 1859); served as first regent of the Ladies Association (1853–74).
Though we slay our forests, remove our dead, pull down our churches … let them see that we know how to care for the home of our hero.
—Ann Pamela Cunningham
It was the custom of boat captains navigating the Potomac in the 19th century to ring their bells when they passed George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. On one such occasion, in 1853, Louisa Cunningham , traveling home to South Carolina, felt compelled to write to her invalid daughter whom she had just left in Philadelphia:
It was a lovely moonlit night that we went down the Potomac. I went on deck as the bell tolled and we passed Mount Vernon. 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.
Upon receiving the letter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, in Philadelphia to be treated for a spinal injury (suffered in a riding accident) that would plague her for the rest of her life, resolved to accept her mother's challenge. Thus was born the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union.
With Cunningham leading the effort—she was the association's first "regent" until her resignation in 1874—the women of the association publicized and raised money for the cause all over the country. In a very real sense, the hundreds of thousands who continue to enjoy the restored mansion and outbuildings, and who stroll the gardens and grounds, have the women of the association to thank.
By creating the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, Cunningham stepped in to do a job the nation's male politicians had been unable to do. Because George Washington was seen as a hero of the Revolution and Father of his country, suggestions for a suitable memorial came with regularity following his death in 1799. But while sentiment was strong, action was not forthcoming. That year, Congress resolved to build a marble monument to Washington in the capital city; the House and Senate, however, could not agree on an appropriation. In 1833, a private association formed to build the memorial, but it only raised $87,000 in 13 years. In 1848, Congress authorized the private Washington Monument Society to build the monument, and at last work began. The monument would not be completed until 1876.
Congress also considered the purchase of Mount Vernon in 1846, and, in the 1840s, the governor of Virginia suggested that the state buy the property and turn it to some good use, possibly as an asylum for soldiers, an agricultural school, or a literary institution. Neither legislative body acted, and the estate remained in the hands of John A. Washington, in whose possession it continued to deteriorate.
While the idea for preserving Mount Vernon had been discussed for some years, the impetus behind Cunningham's 1853 decision to champion the cause was the rumor that John A. Washington had offered the property for sale, essentially to the highest bidder. The home and tomb of George Washington seemed in danger of being bought by Northern real-estate speculators. On December 2, 1853, Cunningham, writing as "The Southern Matron," published the first of what would prove to be many rousing "Appeals" for the rescue of Mount Vernon. In "To the Ladies of the South," the readers of the Charleston Mercury were reminded that, "Congress has virtually declined to purchase and preserve Mount Vernon in behalf of the nation." She went on to warn her readers in the most emphatic way:
Yet there is now necessity for immediate action, as schemes are on foot for its purchase
by Northern capital, and its devotion to money-making purposes. … [C]an you be still, with closed souls and purses, while the world cries "Shame upon America," and suffer Mount Vernon, with all its sacred associations, to become, as is spoken of and probable, the seat of manufacturers and manufactories; noise and smoke, and the "busy hum of men," destroying all sanctity and repose around the tomb of your own "world's wonder?"… Never! Forbid it, shades of the dead, that the Pilgrims of the shrine of true patriotism should find thee forgotten, and surrounded by blackening smoke and deafening machinery, where money, money, only money ever enters the thought, and gold, only gold, moves the heart or moves the arm!
The Southern Matron hoped that by alerting people to this potential calamity, the national love of Washington might move them to contribute the money necessary for the purchase of Mount Vernon.
Cunningham judged correctly. Contributions poured in, and on the fifth anniversary of her appeal in the Mercury, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, chartered by the State of Virginia, purchased the estate. Though a great deal of work remained to restore the property, in the space of five years Mount Vernon had been saved from speculators through the private contributions of patriotic Americans.
From the beginning, Cunningham aimed her appeals specifically at the women of America, and many people, both male and female, saw the preservation of Mount Vernon as an appropriate form of woman's work. It was thought that, removed as they were from the messy world of public life, women would bring to the project the dignity necessary to properly honor Washington's memory. In the hands of women, Mount Vernon would be elevated above the corrupting influences of party politics that seemed to have paralyzed the effort.
The purity of the endeavor was guaranteed in part because the women involved were not out to make money for themselves. Cunningham wrote to John Washington in 1859 to assure him of this:
Our whole enterprise is based upon the voluntary system in order to make our tribute to the memory of Washington "the heart felt offering of a greatful [sic] people!" Therefore as the sentiment has met with decided approval—our work is done by the voluntary self consecration of the women of our land—aided as they nobly are by the sterner sex.
Further, Cunningham did not feel it was proper for her or any of the Association Ladies to receive any individual publicity for their efforts. She signed her first several appeals "The Southern Matron" for just this reason.
Motivated by the lofty ideals of patriotism, and proceeding in a virtuous and selfless way, the ladies of the Mount Vernon Association exemplified the "true woman" of the antebellum period. The members of the association saw themselves as embodying the cardinal virtues of true womanhood: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity (Barbara Welter was perhaps the first historian to describe these characteristics in her influential article, "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820–1860," in American Quarterly 18, 1966). Far from handicapping them, these womanly virtues contributed to the association's success, according to one contributor to Godey's Lady's Book. In 1859, she wrote: "Our feminine ways of doing business are shown to be rather more expeditious and certain than those of masculine management, chiefly because we put our hearts' energies into the work, and do not ask any compensation save success!" Without resorting to the "unwomanly tones" and demands of the suffragists, the Ladies of the Association did push the boundaries of the "domestic sphere," and they created new public opportunities for themselves.
This did not go unnoticed, and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association had its detractors. Some years after the fact, Cunningham remembered problems the association had organizing in Philadelphia. At first, things went splendidly: "in 1855 Philadelphia awoke; great enthusiasm prevailed; … boxes for contributions were allowed in Independence Hall." But then, said Cunningham, the movement was squelched when influential men in the city realized that women were behind it: "because it was woman's effort and they disapproved of women mixing in public affairs." What seemed like appropriately feminine behavior to Cunningham and her ladies was clearly not seen that way by everybody.
So, while their efforts generally met with approval—and while they were usually seen as consonant with the roles prescribed for women within their sphere—such efforts also took these women into the public world, otherwise off-limits to them. The novelty was not lost on them at the time. Sara Agnes Pryor , writing in the June 1895 American Historical Register, looked back to her childhood and recalled:
I remember the first meeting of the Mount Vernon Association in my town. The most beautiful and dignified member of the family was missing at the noon-day dinner. "Where have you been?" was the chorus that greeted her when she appeared with flushed cheeks and kindling. "Where have I been? To the Town Hall! And more, to a meeting of ladies—yes ladies! Making speeches and passing resolutions like men!" If a vote had been taken from the younger members of the family, the verdict would have been that surely the world was coming to an end!
By any measure, but certainly by that of the mid-19th century, the association accomplished a great deal in a brief period. National fundraising, a monthly publication, members around the country, negotiations with politicians, the successful purchase of Mount Vernon—all this without violating the proscriptions of female behavior.
The women of the association felt that they were answering a sacred call on behalf of the nation. It is no accident that the call should be to rescue Washington's home, not a battlefield or his Executive Office. Within their domestic sphere, women had been entrusted with the safekeeping of American homes; through the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, women took on the guardianship of the national home. The ladies of the Mount Vernon Association endeavored to rescue what surely was the site of perfect domesticity, because it had produced the perfect American. Regardless of what kind of home an ordinary American might have actually come from, he or she could journey to Mount Vernon and view the ideal. At Mount Vernon, George Washington, the greatest public figure in American history and the abstract embodiment of every American virtue, became domesticated.
By domesticating Washington in this way, the ladies of the association hoped to redeem more than individuals. In the 1850s, the rescue and preservation of Mount Vernon served a greater purpose. Many believed this effort would help heal sectional wounds and bring the national family together again, symbolically, under the same roof. Ann Pamela Cunningham had addressed her initial appeals specifically to the "Ladies of the South." In her first article, she warned her Southern sisters of the "schemes" to purchase Mount Vernon by "Northern capital." Shortly thereafter, however, Cunningham changed her strategy and began appealing to all American women. As she wrote in 1858: "When I started the Mount Vernon movement it was a Southern affair altogether. … A call was made to the women of the South to gather around Washington's grave. … The motives were pure, the intentions were generous, but it failed! … Washington belonged not alone to the South!" By 1856, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association became the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union.
In a Fourth of July speech in 1859, association member Mary Cutts applauded the unifying effect the preservation of Mount Vernon might have:
Miss Cunningham, Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, with her strong love for the Union and the whole Union, proposes that from the North to the South, from the East to the West of the United States, the people should join together as a band of brothers, in a simultaneous effort to advance this truly national enterprise.
Pryor, Sara Agnes (b. 1830)
American author and social leader. Name variations: Mrs. Roger Pryor. Born on February 19, 1830, in Halifax County, Virginia; tutored at home and attended a female seminary in Charlottesville, Virginia; married Roger Atkinson Pryor (a lawyer, member of the New York Supreme Court, and U.S. congressional representative); children: seven.
Sara Agnes Pryor founded the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was a charter member of the Colonial Dames of America. Though always a writer and a frequent contributor to magazines, her first book was not published until she was 73; six years later, she published My Day: Reminiscences of a Long Life.
Cunningham may have begun her project motivated by sectional animus, but, with the crisis growing closer, Mount Vernon became the site where the two sections might forget about their squabbles. In an event heavy with symbolism, on February 23, 1858, the women presented gifts to Massachusetts Senator Edward Everett and Alabama Senator William Lowndes Yancey, representative figures of North and South, for their efforts to save Mount Vernon.
Explaining why the association, and precisely not Congress, should act as guardian of Mount Vernon, Cunningham told readers of the May 1855 Southern Literary Messenger that the politicians in Congress would make Mount Vernon "the great yearly battle ground of pro and anti slavery antipathies. The heart sickens at the mere thought of such a 'future' for it."
Just as North and South spiralled toward disunion, the women who worked to save Mount Vernon believed that the two sections, like siblings who have fallen out, could be brought back together around its hearth. Cunningham went on to reiterate that, under the care of the nation's women, Mount Vernon could serve as the nurturing, national home:
Devoted woman would neither be baffled nor conquered; but she alone triumphs when common homestead can be procured as a common heritage, for the estranged children of a common father, the spell of whose memory will yet have the power to reunite them around his hallowed sepulchre.
At the moment when Washington was being used by men for purposes of divisive sectional politics, the ladies of the association insisted that Washington, and those who would honor his memory, should stand above politics.
Despite their efforts, of course, Mount Vernon did not exert the healing influence the association hoped it would. Yet whatever else the war may have destroyed, it left Mount Vernon intact. At the outset of the fighting, generals Scott, McClellan, and Lee agreed that Mount Vernon would be treated as neutral territory. As Mrs. Comegys , the vice-regent from Delaware, explained to Honorable Nicholson in 1868:
By order of Generals Scott and McClellan, no soldier with arms was permitted to tread upon our enchanted 200 acres, and General Lee (Heaven rain blessings on his head) gave an order that the first man in his armies who went there at all, should be shot. So it was the Ararat of the day—the only spot held to be sacred or not in dispute; and I may add, not without pride, that our Association was the only one in the land, whose national organization was preserved.
Though the association she headed would continue its work after the end of the fighting, the war had a profound impact on Ann Pamela Cunningham. In November 1865, she penned a long, rambling lament to her doctor in Philadelphia. Having spent the war at her home in South Carolina, her sectional loyalties, which she hid as regent of the Association, resurfaced: "O! How changed I am! Where is the enthusiasm to come from needed to re-kindle extinguished fires? … I have become a broken spirited woman whose inspiration is gone because the fountain from which I drew it is dried up forever!" Cunningham felt personally betrayed by the savagery of the war. Her enthusiasm gone, her faith in the nation destroyed, she wrote to Dr. Hodge: "My 'idol' is broken! I see now, it is made of villainous clay and not porcelain." But when Mount Vernon opened to the public again in the spring of 1865, the Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser announced: "It is one of the pleasantest features of the return of peace, that the sacred home of the father of his country is once more accessible to the people of all sections of the nation."
Cunningham seems to have been possessed with an unusual fascination with the past, and one that represents a new historical consciousness that would make Mount Vernon's preservation possible. In 1845, she had published an article-length history of her family in which she tried to redeem the reputation of her Loyalist ancestors. Appearing as an appendix in George Ward's Journal and Letters of the Late Samuel Curwen, … A Loyalist Refugee in England, During the American Revolution, Cunningham's piece received harsh criticism, most notably from William Gilmore Simms. The attack angered Cunningham, and Simms apologized for having "given pain to a creature so delicately constituted." Cunningham responded that "mind has no sex," and that it was her "misfortune to be made of sterner stuff."
In her letter to Hodge, Cunningham remembered nostalgically: "As a mere child of 10 years my eyes would flash—face flush & my soul fill with ardor, as I would recite from American history." Similarly, she began a business letter to Sarah Tracy in 1866 by telling her:
I have been bewitched tonight. I believe my dear Miss T the "spirit of the past" came over me & my pen has flown—jotting down "remembrances" as they crossed the mind pretty much at hap-hazard I fear—I did not intend to do as I have but I went "on & on" almost unconsciously, for without knowing why I could not get rid of the past.
With the coming of the Civil War, however, it had become clear that the relentless forces of change from which Cunningham would rescue Mount Vernon were not simply invaders from the North. Change came inevitably in both North and South, and that realization gave new urgency to the association's work. When she resigned her position as regent of the association in 1874, her farewell address underscored her desire to insulate Mount Vernon and protect it from all the forces of the outside world. She told the vice regents:
Such was the pledge made to the American heart when an appeal was made to it to save the home and tomb of Washington, the Father of His Country, for all change, whether by law or desecration. … The mansion and the grounds around it should be religiously guarded from change—should be kept as Washington left them.
Looking to the future, she advised them more directly:
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. … Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change. Upon you rests this duty.
This sentiment has become the guiding principle of Mount Vernon, and Cunningham's address is read each year at the annual meeting of the Ladies Association.
The association's vision of what Mount Vernon might be has been largely realized. Restored in exact duplication of the original and filled with original artifacts, Mount Vernon has, for over 100 years, remained a mecca for worshipers of the secular religion of Washington. The estate is seen annually by well over one million visitors, and former curator Charles Cecil Wall has written of them: "If asked why they come, they might well echo the words of Ann Pamela Cunningham: 'They come to see how and where George Washington lived.'"
Though committed to preserving an unchanging past, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union did, in one sense, point the way toward the future. As the 19th century wore on, more and more Americans felt the need to take refuge in the simplicity of the past, to escape, at least temporarily, the confusion of the present. When they did so by preserving the relics of the past, they followed the model developed at Mount Vernon. Those who would later preserve Andrew Jackson's home, The Heritage, and Jefferson's Monticello looked to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association for inspiration.
Page, Thomas Nelson. Historical Sketch of Ann Pamela Cunningham. Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 1903.
——. Mount Vernon and Its Preservation, 1858–1910. NY: Knickerbocker Press, 1932.
Hosmer, Charles. The Presence of the Past: A History of the Preservation Movement in the United States Before Williamsburg. NY: Putnam, 1965.
Kammen, Michael. A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. NY: Knopf, 1978.
Marling, Karal Ann. George Washington Slept Here: Colonial Revivals and American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Manuscript and archival material about Ann Pamela Cunningham and her efforts to preserve Mount Vernon can be found in the library at Mount Vernon.
Steven Conn , Assistant Professor of History, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio