By the 1850s, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River downstream from the District of Columbia, had fallen into disrepair. At the time, the federal government did not consider the maintenance of such historical sites to be within its proper purview, so a group calling itself Mount Vernon Ladies Association got together, purchased the property, and saved it from ruin. This self-perpetuating organization still exists and still runs Mount Vernon as an attraction; I can attest that they do a mighty fine job of it. The Palladian mansion, which Washington kept adding to, is what everyone has come to see, but of course a plantation was its own self-contained economy, with outbuildings devoted to all sorts of functions, including blacksmithing, butchery, food storage, distilling, tool storage, clothmaking, defecation (“the necessary”), and housing workers, including enslaved ones. These are staffed by interpreters in period costume, and you could easily spend an entire day here wandering around.
The recently-built Museum and Education Center outlines Washington’s career, and has an interesting array of objects on display, including the sole surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures (none of which, by the way, was made of wood).
The Museum also features an exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon,” a necessary exposure of this most unsavory fact of American history. Yes, Mount Vernon was largely powered by slaves, who were about three hundred in number by the time of Washington’s death. It’s true that Washington ordered his own slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow Martha Custis Washington, and she herself freed them earlier than that, but the forty or so rented slaves had to be returned to their owner, and upon Martha’s death the slaves belonging to the Custis estate descended to her children by her first marriage – she could not have freed them even if she had wanted to. The museum notes that by the end of his life Washington disliked slavery, and hoped that it would die out eventually, but it also notes that he was rather parsimonious in providing for them, and had no problem chasing down those who ran away. Perhaps it is no surprise that John Augustine Washington III, the President’s great grand nephew and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
But despite all this, one cannot help but admire Washington’s career. He was born to modest privilege but still had to make something of himself, which he did by virtue of hard work, self-cultivation, a prudent marriage alliance, calculated risk-taking, and a little luck. That he resigned his command of the Continental Army, rather than seize power, is remarkable; that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, served two terms as president, and then gracefully retired again, is almost miraculous. The American Cincinnatus really did establish a powerful precedent, to the admiration all who value the republican nature of the United States.
But on the whole I was curious to note how un-American Washington was – or rather, how America has evolved beyond Washington’s own way of life. When we think of America, we think of the log cabin on the frontier, not the manor house. Running a plantation, in any case, seems like constant work – it’s not something you own, but something that owns you (even though, I suppose, it’s a big reason why Washington retired twice – he wanted to get back to his “real” job).