The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is a non-profit organization that preserves and maintains the Mount Vernon estate originally owned by George Washington and family. It was founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham of Rosemont Plantation, South Carolina.
After the deaths of George Washington (in 1799) and his widow Martha (in 1802), Mount Vernon remained in the family for three generations. John Augustine Washington III, a great-great-nephew of George Washington, eventually inherited the property, but he could not afford to maintain it. By the 1850s the home was beginning to crumble. However, John Washington would not sell to commercial developers and insisted that the new owner preserve Mount Vernon as an historic site.
He offered to sell the estate to either the Federal government or the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the legislatures declined, saying it would not be proper to spend taxpayers' money to acquire private property.
In 1853, South Carolina planter and socialite Louise Dalton Bird Cunningham was riding a ferry down the Potomac River one night. She awoke when the ferry captain signaled the horn as they passed Mount Vernon. She saw that Washington's home was in poor condition. She wrote her daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, saying, "If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can't the women of America band together to save it?"
Inspired by her mother's words, the younger Cunningham decided to initiate a project to raise money to save the plantation. She wrote an open letter to the editor of the South Carolina newspaper, Charleston Mercury, titled "To the Ladies of the South." It appealed to American women to donate funds to rescue Mount Vernon.
She also founded the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and invited influential women from each state (there were 30 at that time) to serve as its original Vice-Regents. It was the first nationwide women's organization in America and the first private preservation organization.
Serving as its first Regent, Cunningham began a nationwide fundraising effort through the Association to save the home of the first president. Initially they planned to raise the money and transfer it to Virginia to buy the property. It would delegate care to the Association. That arrangement proved unworkable. In March 1858, Virginia's House of Delegates defeated a bill to buy Mount Vernon.
John Washington agreed to sell directly to the Association. The contract was signed in Richmond on April 6, 1858; the gold pen used by Cunningham is held by the Association. He agreed to sell the Mansion, outbuildings, and 200 surrounding acres to the Association for $200,000. He took an immediate down payment of $18,000 and the balance was to be paid in four installments, payable on February 22 (Washington's birthday) each of the next four years.
Edward Everett and William Lowndes Yancey were among supporters who conducted speaking tours about Washington/Mount Vernon to raise money to complete the purchase. The Association raised the capital in about eighteen months, announcing it had met its goal in mid-December 1859. The Association took formal possession on Washington's birthday, and John A. Washington and his family moved out of the Mansion on February 22, 1860.
To demonstrate their nationwide appeal at a time of high sectional tensions, the Association renamed the group as The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union. Ann Pamela Cunningham's vision became the Association's mission statement:
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. Those who go to the home in which he lived and died wish to see in what he lived and died. Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change. Upon you rests this duty.
The Association maintains a headquarters on the Mount Vernon property. It has a Regent, or chairman, and 30 trustees, or Vice Regents, who represent their home states. The non-profit Association is fully private, relying on admission fees, revenues from food and gift sales, and donations from foundations, businesses, and individuals.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Vice Regents agreed to take responsibility for the preservation and restoration of individual rooms. Detailed inventories taken in 1799 following George Washington's death were used in determining what furnishings were original to Mount Vernon. Decades of research as well as gifts, loans, and purchases were conducted to get the original furnishings returned to Mt. Vernon.
Congresswoman Frances P. Bolton, who served as Vice Regent from Ohio from 1938 to 1977, launched an effort in the 1940s to preserve the view across the Potomac River. The Association purchased 750 acres (3.0 km2) along the (opposite) Maryland shore, which became the nucleus of the 4,000-acre (16 km2) Piscataway Park. This has helped preserve the landscape as the Washingtons would have seen it.
On June 22, 2012, the Association purchased Washington's personal copy of the United States Constitution at auction for $9.8 million. The bound volume was specially printed for Washington in 1789, his first year in office as president, and contains his handwritten notes and markings. George Washington books and manuscripts purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association are safeguarded in The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.