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, Jr., a great-great-nephew of George Washington, eventually became owner of the property, but had insufficient funds 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 tax-payers' money to acquire private property.
In 1853, "South Carolina 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 looked out the window and then saw Washington's home in poor condition. Appalled, 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, Ann Pamela Cunningham wrote a 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 and come to the rescue of Mount Vernon. She 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.
Miss Cunningham and the Association launched a nationwide fund raising effort. The initial intent was for the Association to raise the money, which would be deposited in Richmond to allow Virginia to purchase the property and then assign care of the estate to the Association. However, that arrangement proved unworkable. When, in March 1858, "Virginia's House of Delegates defeated a bill for the purchase of Mt. Vernon, John Washington agreed to sell directly to the Association and the contract was signed in Richmond on April 6, 1858: the gold pen used by Miss Cunningham to sign remains in the possession of the Association. The agreement was to sell the Mansion, outbuildings and 200 surrounding acres to the Association for $200,000, with an immediate down payment of $18,000 and the balance 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 went on speaking tours to raise money. The Association raised the capital in about eighteen months, announcing it had met its goal in mid-December 1859. The Association, in a symbolic gesture, took formal possession on Washington's birthday, when John A. Washington and his family moved out of the Mansion on February 22, 1860. To demonstrate the nationwide scope of the organization on the eve of war between North and South, the Association appended their name to The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union.
Ann Pamela Cunningham's original vision became the Association's mission statement which remains the same today:
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, and consists of a Regent, or chairman, and 30 trustees, or Vice Regents, who represent their home states. The non-profit Association still receives no federal or state financial aid and relies solely 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 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 was the nucleus of the 4,000-acre (16 km2) "Piscataway Park.
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.