ENTRY

Ann Pamela Cunningham (August 15, 1816–May 1, 1875)

SUMMARY

Ann Pamela Cunningham was the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which helped set in motion the historic preservation movement in the United States. Cunningham was born on August 15, 1816, at Rosemont Plantation in Laurens County, South Carolina. A serious, deeply patriotic, and ambitious young woman, Cunningham became an invalid after a riding accident in her late teens. She found the cause of her life when her mother wrote to her in 1853 about the dilapidated condition of Mount Vernon, the former plantation home of George Washington, which had long suffered from neglect and an overabundance of eager tourists. Writing in the Charleston Mercury, Cunningham challenged the women of the American South to save “the home and grave” of George Washington in the face of male politicians’ unwillingness to act. The campaign to raise $200,000 to purchase the property quickly gained momentum throughout the South and soon spread to the North despite objections from some abolitionists that it inappropriately memorialized what was still a site of enslavement. In 1856, the Commonwealth of Virginia authorized the establishment of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), with Cunningham as its leader. In 1858, the MVLA signed a contract to purchase Mount Vernon from John Augustine Washington III. Cunningham spent the American Civil War (1861–1865) in South Carolina as efforts to restore Mount Vernon languished. She returned to the estate in 1867 and guided it through the immediate postwar years. She resigned from the MLVA in June 1874 due to her declining health and died in South Carolina on May 1, 1875.

Early Life

Cunningham was born on August 15, 1816, at Rosemont Plantation in Laurens County, South Carolina, to Robert Cunningham and Louisa Dalton Bird Cunningham. A member of a privileged family that owned a 10,000-acre cotton plantation and enslaved eighty-six people in 1810, Cunningham was educated by private tutors and attended boarding schools, including the South Carolina Female Collegiate Institute. She was bookish with a passionate interest in history, especially George Washington, who had been a friend of her great-grandfather, John Dalton. She was known for her “independence of thought and act—self-reliant and talented,” but a riding accident when she was seventeen left her with a spinal injury that caused chronic pain and debilitating symptoms. Letters to friends show a serious, deeply patriotic, and ambitious young woman who felt compelled to achieve something of importance. In 1843, she published a family history defending the actions of her Loyalist grandfather during the American Revolution, but the book was poorly received. By her late twenties, Cunningham was unmarried and considered a hopeless invalid, her symptoms perhaps exacerbated by the available treatments of the time: calomel, a widely used purgative that contained mercury, and the opiate laudanum. By her mid-thirties, she was spending several months each year under the care of a Philadelphia physician who specialized in “nervous” diseases of women, for which he prescribed complete rest and the lack of any mental stimulation. 

Cunningham’s life changed in the autumn of 1853 when she received a letter from her mother, who had passed by Mount Vernon on a steamboat on the way back from visiting her daughter in Philadelphia. Louisa Cunningham had been distressed by the “ruin and desolation” visible at Washington’s home, considering it “a blot on our country.” She wondered, “Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”

Mount Vernon

The 8,000-acre Mount Vernon plantation had been divided into parcels and passed down through several generations of George Washington’s relatives after Martha Washington’s death in 1802. By the early 1850s, the main property—the mansion where George and Martha Washington had lived, the tomb where they were buried, and 1,225 acres of surrounding farmland—was owned by John Augustine Washington III, George Washington’s great-grandnephew. Augustine Washington had been managing the property for his mother since 1841, when she agreed to pay him $500 per year and lend him twenty-two enslaved laborers to work the plantation. The estate had long been deteriorating, and Augustine Washington had difficulty maintaining it in the face of soil erosion, crop failures, and Virginia’s declining agricultural economy. He was also constantly interrupted by visitors to what historian Jean B. Lee termed the “American Mecca,” where pilgrims came to affirm the memory of George Washington and the “greatness of the Revolution itself” by touring the mansion, walking the grounds that Washington walked, and “kneeling and weeping before the tomb.”

Despite its private ownership, Mount Vernon had become a quasi-public space after the deaths of George and Martha Washington, with sightseers trampling the grounds, entering the mansion, and carrying away bits and pieces of the estate as souvenirs. In the early 1820s, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who had inherited Mount Vernon from his uncle George Washington, was so beleaguered by tourists who arrived by steamboat that he banned the boats from landing at the wharf and people from “eating, drinking, and dancing” on the lawn. Jane Charlotte Washington, Augustine Washington’s mother, had attempted to impose some order on tourism in the 1840s by refusing admittance to the mansion to those without a letter of introduction, enlisting some of the estate’s enslaved laborers as tour guides, and selling refreshments and souvenirs to the tourists.

Hoping to capitalize on the site’s popularity and shore up its finances, Augustine Washington struck a deal with a local steamboat company to run excursions from Washington, D.C., three days a week. He invested in a new road between Washington, D.C., and Mount Vernon. The result was an explosion of tourists—10,000 a year—who further trampled the property and helped themselves to shingles from outbuildings and chunks of molding from the mansion, causing further deterioration without netting Washington enough money to keep up the property. The surge in visitors also brought attention to Mount Vernon’s decayed condition, which many observers blamed on the Washington family. The famed piazza with its view of the Potomac River sagged and was propped up by tree trunks and discarded ship’s masts; the greenhouse remained a charred ruin after having burned down two decades earlier; the fences were rotting; and weeds had overtaken much of the property. “Shame, shame, on those who bear the name of Washington!” one indignant critic wrote, while others criticized what they presumed to be Augustine Washington’s irresponsible management.

Unable to maintain the property but unwilling to sell it to private developers, Washington offered to sell Mount Vernon to the federal government or the Commonwealth of Virginia for $200,000 on the condition that it be preserved in perpetuity. But preoccupied with other concerns in the years leading up to the Civil War, neither government accepted his offer.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Cunningham acted almost immediately after receiving her mother’s letter about the deplorable state of Mount Vernon. On December 2, 1853, the Charleston Mercury published her letter challenging southern women to save Washington’s “home and grave” from ruin, private speculators, and the inaction of male politicians by raising the funds to purchase it and preserve it as “a hallowed resort for all people.” She signed the letter “A Southern Matron” since it was considered improper for an elite southern woman to be involved in public affairs.

Cunningham set a goal of raising $200,000 to purchase Mount Vernon and donate it to Virginia. The campaign was a success almost from the start. Mercury readers sent in small sums of money, and more donations followed when other southern newspapers reprinted Cunningham’s appeal. The first public fundraising meeting took place at Cunningham’s home on February 22, 1854. As the volume of donations increased, Cunningham enlisted her cousin, Philoclea Edgeworth Eve, of Augusta, Georgia, to help handle the mail, with Eve disguising her identity under the moniker “The Committee.” The anonymous nature of the enterprise, however, soon began to cause uneasiness about how the money would be accounted for and spent. After the first flutter of excitement, interest began to taper off.

In response, Cunningham reorganized the campaign on a more transparent state basis, with efforts in each state coordinated by a publicly identified “head” woman who would send the funds to the Mount Vernon Central Committee, which deposited the money in a designated account. States soon were competing to raise the most money. Godey’s Lady’s Book and the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger, two popular magazines, published regular campaign updates and helped publicize the effort.

In 1856, the Commonwealth of Virginia approved a charter establishing the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), which then had legal standing to raise $200,000 to purchase the 200 acres of Mount Vernon that Augustine Washington had indicated he would sell. The MVLA planned to turn the property over to Virginia, which would hold it in trust for the MVLA to manage.

But Augustine Washington believed no organization of women, no matter how well meaning, could carry out such an ambitious plan. In January 1857, he announced that he had taken Mount Vernon off the market, thereby bringing the campaign to a near halt. Cunningham spent the next year trying to change Washington’s mind about the MVLA’s management abilities. The two became good friends, and he gradually came to trust her and agreed to sell the property to the MVLA. In March 1858, after the Virginia General Assembly had failed to pass a revised bill acceptable to Washington, the 1856 charter was amended to allow the MVLA to purchase and own Mount Vernon. On April 6, 1858, Washington signed a contract to sell the historic core of Mount Vernon—the mansion, tomb, outbuildings, and about 200 surrounding acres—to the MVLA for $200,000. The MVLA made a down payment of $18,000 and agreed to pay the remainder within four years.

With a path to purchase Mount Vernon now clear, the MVLA stepped up its efforts, inaugurating an official publication, the Mount Vernon Record, and selling lithographed portraits of George Washington for a dollar each as a fundraising tool. Cunningham demonstrated remarkable management and fundraising ability despite the constraints imposed by her frail condition and the limited communication tools of the time.

Although the movement to save Mount Vernon originated in the South, women from the North and West joined, making it a national cause with representation from thirty of the thirty-five states. However, some prominent northern women refused to participate because Mount Vernon remained a site of enslavement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, said that banning slavery would be a greater tribute to Washington than creating a monument to his memory. Despite objections from some of her southern supporters, Cunningham hoped the national reach of the cause would help overcome the sectionalism that increasingly consumed the country.

Cunningham assumed the title of regent of the organization and deputized one well-connected woman as vice-regent to head each state’s effort. Among the women she appointed were her cousin, Philoclea Edgeworth Eve; Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a well-known playwright and actress with powerful political connections in Virginia; Mary Hamilton, the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton, who worked to galvanize New York State; and Octavia Walton LeVert, an accomplished author and famous socialite who raised more than $10,000 in her home state of Alabama.

Cunningham followed a cardinal rule of nineteenth-century female activism and never spoke publicly about the effort. Instead, she received visitors at her Philadelphia headquarters and enlisted them in her cause. The most prominent of her supporters was Edward Everett, a distinguished orator who had served as U.S. senator, governor of Massachusetts, U.S. secretary of state, and president of Harvard University. He donated all the proceeds from the national tour of his popular speech on the “greatness of George Washington,” which totaled about $70,000, to the MVLA.

Cunningham’s fundraising prowess enabled the MVLA to raise the remaining money needed to purchase Mount Vernon in less than two years and to take possession of the property in February 1860. Cunningham hired a private secretary from New York, Sarah Tracy, and a resident manager from Virginia, Upton Herbert, so that both the North and the South were represented in running the estate. In addition, several free African Americans, including Emily, a cook; Priscilla, a chambermaid; and George, a coachman, served in paid positions. Nevertheless, by the time the Civil War began in 1861, only the most urgently needed repairs had been made to the property.

The Civil War Years and Afterward

Cunningham was in South Carolina when the war started, having returned there to help manage the contentious division of her father’s estate after his death in 1859. Her father had left her a 1,000-acre tract of land and forty-five enslaved people, but she found that the “plantation had gone to rack and ruin.” She complained bitterly that much of the land she was to receive was worthless and that her portion of the enslaved labor force consisted of largely older and disabled people. Cunningham spent the war at Rosemont, struggling with dire economic circumstances and the eventual loss of the plantation’s enslaved laborers. She lost touch with members of the MVLA board and her northern friends. The management of the Mount Vernon fell to Tracey, Herbert, and the free Black staff.

Cunningham returned to Mount Vernon in 1867 and began the work of rebuilding the MVLA in the face of lingering sectional animosities. She appointed new vice-regents and reconvened the governing council. She moved into the mansion to oversee the restoration of the house and grounds. She successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to appropriate $7,000 to compensate Mount Vernon for the U.S. Army’s seizure of the property’s steamboat during the war.

Declining health led to Cunningham’s resignation from the MVLA June 1874. With the death of her mother and the final division of the estate between her and her brother, she became the owner of Rosemont in late January 1875. She died three months later, on May 1, 1875, and was buried at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Because Cunningham had not married, her property reverted to her brother, who had struggled with debt for years and had been largely supported by his mother. Her legacy was the preservation of Mount Vernon and the creation of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which became the prototype for historic preservation organizations nationwide.

MAP
TIMELINE
December 14, 1799
George Washington dies at Mount Vernon after a short illness.
May 22, 1802

Martha Washington dies. Mount Vernon’s acreage is subsequently divided into parcels that are passed down to various descendants.

August 15, 1816

Ann Pamela Cunningham is born to Robert Cunningham and Louisa Dalton Bird Cunningham at Rosemont Plantation in Laurens County, South Carolina.

1824

Ann Pamela Cunningham graduates with high honors from the South Carolina Female Collegiate Institute near Columbia, South Carolina.

1841

John Augustine Washington III, George Washington’s great-grandnephew, takes over management of Mount Vernon.

November, 1850

Ann Pamela Cunningham begins treatment in Philadelphia for a debilitating medical condition associated with a spinal injury suffered after a fall from a horse in her late teens.

1853

The historic core of Mount Vernon, including the mansion where George and Martha Washington had lived and Washington’s tomb, are owned by John Augustine Washington III, who lacks the resources to maintain the property.

November, 1853

Louisa Dalton Bird Cunningham writes to Ann Pamela Cunningham about the unfortunate condition of Mount Vernon, suggesting that the patriotic women of America should combine forces to rescue the property since the nation’s men had failed to do so.

December 2, 1853

Writing under the pen name “A Southern Matron” in the Charleston Mercury, Ann Pamela Cunningham launches a campaign to raise $200,000 to purchase and restore Mount Vernon.

February 22, 1854

The first public fundraising meeting for the campaign to purchase Mount Vernon takes place at Ann Pamela Cunningham’s home.

1855

Godey’s Lady’s Book and the Southern Literary Messenger begin publishing monthly reports on the progress of the campaign to purchase Mount Vernon, thereby stimulating competition among states to raise the most money.

March 17, 1856

The Virginia General Assembly grants a charter to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, vesting it with the authority to raise $200,000 to purchase Mount Vernon and manage it under state supervision.

April 5, 1856

Angered by the amount of authority the Virginia General Assembly vested in the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, John Augustine Washington III takes Mount Vernon off the market.

June, 1856

Ann Pamela Cunningham visits John Augustine Washington III at Mount Vernon to convince him to sell the property to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

March, 1857

John Augustine Washington III has agreed to sell Mount Vernon to Virginia if the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association can raise the money but does not want the association to manage the property.

December, 1857

Ann Pamela Cunningham travels to Richmond to lobby the Virginia House of Delegates to pass a bill that would commit the state to purchase Mount Vernon with funding from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

March, 1858

After the Virginia House of Delegates fails to authorize the state to buy Mount Vernon, John Augustine Washington III decides to sell the property directly to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

April 6, 1858

Ann Pamela Cunningham and John Augustine Washington III sign a contract for the sale of Mount Vernon, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association makes a down payment on the property.

July, 1858

The first issue of the Mount Vernon Record, the official journal of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, is published.

February, 1860

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association takes possession of the Mount Vernon and hires workers to begin making repairs.

January, 1861

Ann Pamela Cunningham travels to South Carolina after the death of her father and is unable to leave when the American Civil War breaks out.

November, 1866

Ann Pamela Cunningham chairs the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s first postwar meeting, held in Washington, D.C.

December, 1867

Ann Pamela Cunningham announces plans to move into the mansion at Mount Vernon to oversee restoration work on the estate.

July, 1868

Ann Pamela Cunningham lobbies the U.S. Congress to reimburse Mount Vernon for income lost due to Union actions during the war, but Congress fails to act.

February, 1869

Ann Pamela Cunningham persuades the U.S. Congress to compensate Mount Vernon $7,000 for the U.S. Army’s seizure of the property’s steamboat during the war.

June, 1874

In failing health, Ann Pamela Cunningham resigns from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

May 1, 1875

Ann Pamela Cunningham dies at Rosemont Plantation in Laurens County, South Carolina.

FURTHER READING

Brandt, Lydia Mattice. First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Casper, Scott E. Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.

Goddin, Ann Bay. “Invalid Juggernaut: Ann Pamela Cunningham and Her Quest to Save George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” In Women in George Washington’s World, edited by Charlene M. Boyer Lewis and George W. Boudreaux, 212–236. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022.

West, Patricia. Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Bay Godin, Ann. Ann Pamela Cunningham (August 15, 1816–May 1, 1875). (2024, April 01). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/ann-pamela-cunningham-august-15-1816-may-1-1875.
MLA Citation:
Bay Godin, Ann. "Ann Pamela Cunningham (August 15, 1816–May 1, 1875)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (01 Apr. 2024). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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