George Washington Part 5: Mount Vernon

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There are rivers and there are rivers, I thought, as I pulled my car over to the side of the road to take a look at the Potomac. The drive had been short, maybe three hours, but I had noticed, as I often do, how quickly America changes from one thing into another. I found myself in Virginia, not far from where I had grown up, and I felt the place in my bones. I hadn’t loved Virginia as a child, found nothing about the staid, suburban neighborhood that I had grown up in to miss. Even Washington D.C., a mere fifteen minute ride from home, never felt like a real place because, despite its history, it had no soul, just existed as a sort of giant Holiday Inn for youthfully ambitious transients. As a child and teenager, I was bemused when I read about people like Robert E. Lee who considered their home community to be their country, a place they were willing to die for. I wouldn’t have died for Falls Church, Virginia, wouldn’t even have cared much if the place disappeared off the face of the earth.   Still, there was no mistaking the feelings I had as I drove through Virginia, saw the color of the grass take on that particular hue from my childhood. Things were different in Virginia, the grass greener, the trees bigger. And, of course, there was the Potomac River.

One of the things I love most about my home of Philadelphia is its Wissahicken Park, a large area just outside the city that has a myriad of trails in the midst of hilly woodlands. I take a bike ride on the weekends that follows the Schuylkill River, taking it from Center City straight out through Valley Forge. I love riding along the Schuylkill, usually listening to Dylan on my iPod.  The Schuylkill, however, does not enthrall me or in any way excite my passions. It is a body of water, it separates two municipalities, and it is as serviceable a place as any for the regattas that take place upon it virtually every weekend throughout the spring and summer. But that’s it. Pretty enough, but it has not worked its way into my heart.

The Potomac is another matter entirely. Weighing in at 383 miles, the Potomac connects Washington DC, Virginia, and Maryland. It was, I could see, a river with grand implications. It has gravitas. The water, itself, seems stolid, somehow, and strong. It is a large river. And part of its great beauty comes from the surrounding lands, all woodlands. Stand at the part of Washington’s land that faces the Potomac, and you see trees all around. Off, at the most distant part of the river, the trees are there, but vague and indistinct, creating the impression one gets looking across the ocean. You see this indistinct hazy woodland and you get an idea of it without quite seeing the thing itself. It might be over-stating the case to say that the view Washington had was awe-inspiring, but it is impossible to imagine George Washington, or anybody else for that matter, living in the river’s proximity and not being strengthened by the relationship.

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With a few hours to kill before my meeting with noted Washington scholar Mary V. Thompson, I followed the signs that directed me to the mansion and, voila, there it was, standing straight and seemingly indestructible. It is a big house, but somewhat un-ostentatious. There is a large green field in the front and a brick structure that goes up to the house, like the long end of an L. The house itself is simple and elegant – a bright white that contrasts with the black window paneling. The only thing I could see that seemed to offer any personal commentary on Washington himself was the weather vane atop the house, which was a dove, indicating Washington’s desire for ever-lasting peace.

I would have time for the mansion later.[1] For now, prior to the interview, I chose to visit the “Education Center,” which had a faintly Soviet sounding edge to it, but which I found to have interesting and instructive exhibits.

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The main exhibit was titled: “Discovering the Real George Washington: A Leader of Character.” It featured a giant rendering of Washington that – get this now – followed you wherever you walked. Not just the eyes, mind you, but the entire face. Don’t ask me how. For those of you killjoys who consider things like this nothing but cheap and demeaning kitsch, I say that when you are competing for the attention of kids in the world of the Wii and Xbox, you use whatever tools your creativity can devise as long as it helps, rather than hurts, the learning process. At any rate everyone, whether they were adults or children, seemed to be delighted with the thing.

Next was the question, scrawled across the succeeding wall: “What did George Washington really look like?” It is a good question. Neither of the two well-known images that I have already noted, the Gilbert Stewart portrait or the Emmanuel Leutze painting, gives us much of an indication of what it would have been like to sit across a dining table from Washington. What did he look like? There were no paintings made of Washington prior to his fortieth birthday, and those made afterwards usually sacrificed authenticity in order to present Washington in an almost God-like light. Part of the reason few Americans have a kinship with our first president is that we really aren’t sure how he looked. Which is the reason that the people at Mount Vernon decided to make a tremendous effort to create a life-size figure of Washington that was as accurate as possible. Nor were they shy in advertising their efforts, which comprised “an intensive three year project involving forensic experts, historians, artists, and computer specialists.” In a film about the making of the life size figures, scholars gushed about the difficulties the experts at Mount Vernon faced. “It was a challenge that would stretch science, and art to its limits,” said one. “It would take brilliance, persistence and an unflagging eye for detail,” said another. “People are going to look and think – this is the man!” enthused a third.

You would think that with that kind of a build-up it I was bound to feel disappointed when confronted with the actual article. But I must say, I was impressed. I can’t say that I looked at it and thought – THIS IS THE MAN! – since it was, after all, a mannequin. But I was impressed. In the first section there was a youngish Washington surveying in the woods of Virginia, his note pad in one hand, his pencil in another, as he stares fixedly at something ahead. What Mount Vernon is trying to do is to create an image we do not often come across, a young Washington. We see him as middle-aged or as old, but once upon a time he was in fact a young, very dashing, and very impetuous man who often felt slighted by the treatment of others. In this first image he is absolutely engrossed in his work. His hair is reddish and stretched back, his eyes intent. In the distance a deer watches, presumably thinking: This guy’s pretty cool! It was easy to believe that the figure looked as Washington did. At the very least, it did not remind me of the guy who replaced Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith show, and that in itself was a plus.

I walked on and saw a church pew that you could sit in while watching a film that discussed Washington’s religious beliefs.  There are debates about whether he was a Christian, Deist, an Agnostic, or an atheist. James Flexner, author of the highly-respected, and popular four volume biography of Washington, propounded the theory that he was a Deist, and this was the prevailing theory for many years.

Beyond the pew there was a film, narrated by Glen Close, called A Very Private Romance. (So far the high school kids I had observed seemed to be having a good time, enjoying the giant George head, not to mention the very real looking little dead cows in the recreation of the Battle of Necessity, but, for the boys in the group, attending this movie seemed a bit much. “Dude, this is a bad idea,” one of them said. “It’s ten minutes. You’ll survive,” said a teacher.)

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The film portrayed an extremely loving, family-oriented, and even occasionally randy George Washington. Critics would say that the movie was pure guesswork and speculation. In all of the many murky areas of Washington, perhaps his marriage is the murkiest. We know that he had a seemingly passionate love for Sally Fairfax, a woman who was married to a close friend of his. We know that his marriage to Martha was economically advantageous to Washington and that he wrote to Sally, just prior to marrying Martha, indicating that Sally was the one he loved. Other than those salient facts, we are left grasping at hints and clues. We know that in the early days of the marriage, Washington purchased some Spanish Fly, which was believed to enhance sexual performance. We also know that when a female friend and confidant of Washington’s, Elizabeth Powell, chanced upon a number of letters between the Washingtons that he had left in a desk he had given Powell, he responded to her teases by stating that “the correspondence would, I am persuaded, have been found to be more fraught with expressions of friendship than of enamored love” and that anyone looking for “passion…of the romantic order” would have thrown them in a fire.[i] We also have a tiny scrap, a postscript Martha wrote on the end of a letter from another, in which she addressed George as “My love.” The reason we have no further documentary information about their relationship is that she consigned the entirety of their correspondence to the flames. Washington himself, we shall see, was scrupulous about preserving each and every scrap of his formal correspondence. But if the history of their marriage is any indication, he would have acquiesced with her desire to destroy the letters if she had asked him; there was very little that Martha requested that he did not do his best to give her.

Once past the romance exhibit, I got to the one I had been waiting for – “The Dilemma of Slavery.” There was a large painting that showed a not unpleasant depiction of slave life. Washington was standing with a large stick in his hand chatting amiably with the overseer. One slave stood nonchalantly in front of Washington holding a scythe in one hand and drinking a cup of water in the other. Slaves were gathering wheat while a little white boy arranged the hair of a little white girl. Over part of the painting was the Washington quote: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” Under this quote was the following explanation: “As Washington grew older, he found it increasingly difficult to justify slavery in a country founded on liberty. And he questioned its value to the economy. He also believed that the slavery question would tear the country apart – and so, like many others, he refused to address it publicly. Instead he acted privately and freed his slaves in his will, setting an example for others to follow.” To the left of the painting was a “partial listing” of slaves who lived at Mount Vernon.

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There was more. There were descriptions of some of the specific slaves, a sketchy telling of the Oney Judge story[2], and examples of the clothing given to slaves as well as their daily rations. A video screen featured a number of sympathetic African American scholars. “At least he knew his slaves,” said one.

All in all, the slavery exhibition seemed a strange historical mix of admissions, omissions, excuses, and idyllic fallacies.

[1] The mansion tour, which involved being pushed through room after room while guides stood and shouted out random facts about the house, was the least interesting or pleasurable part of my visit.

[2] See Chapter 3.

[i] Chernow, page 769.

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