To understand George Washington, one must understand where he came from, and what it was he wanted. If we had to look at the founders and choose a word to describe their greatest aspirations, we would look at Jefferson and say “liberty.” Adams would get “independence.” Hamilton, possibly “glory.” If we had to give a word for what it was Washington was after, we would say “land.” He wanted land, enough land that he could become not only a gentleman, but the upper crust of Virginia, one of the gentry. He wanted what many people in Virginia wanted, which was to be a gentleman on the same level as anyone from England. Refusing to allow this, keeping their brethren on a lower plane, was what would ultimately cause many Virginians to risk everything in an effort to secure independence.
It can be truly said that the political George Washington – the man who rose to national and then international heights – was born in Philadelphia. (To learn more about this, join us on our Washington’s Steps Tours with Bow Tie Tours.) It was in Philadelphia where an almost silent delegate appeared in 1775 to take part in the First Continental Congress.
George Washington was born on February 11, 1732, a day that would be transformed to February 22nd when the British changed their calendar to the new Gregorian calendar. Washington was a fourth-generation Virginian. John Washington, the patriarch of the family, had come over from England in 1657. The Indians would call him “town taker” because of his proclivity for cheating them out of their land. Even then, you see, the Washingtons cared about land, land not solely for its own sake but so that it would raise their stock from that of respectability – which they had most assuredly reached – to that of prominence – which they had not. John had, wrote noted Washington biographer Ron Chernow, “a bottomless appetite for land, an avidity for public office, and a zest for frontier combat.”
Washington was the eldest of son of his father, Augustine’s, second set of children. One could say that he was the bridge between the two sets of the family. His older half-brother, Lawrence, would in time become his idol. But at the time of his birth, Lawrence was away at Appleby Grammar School. It would be a number of years before George got to know him.
Washington lived in this first house of his for only three years. After that, Augustine relocated his family sixty miles away on a tract at Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac. This mansion would later be called “Mount Vernon.”
And so, given the short period of time Washington lived at the house I was visiting, one could ask whether there was anything to learn from it. That, at least, was what I started to wonder as my third hour of driving stretched into its forth. Would there be anything here, or would it be simply a marker, one of those moments when your intellect is informed of a connection that your heart fails to feel.
When I arrived, though, I felt immediately that there was something special about this place. The first thing I saw was a monument, a smaller version of the Washington Monument that is in Washington D.C. I wondered, not for the first time, how it was that this strange pointed obelisk came to stand for Washington. How could it stand for any man, or anything, this big, long, giant pencil? At a time where we are becoming perilously close to losing all connection with our founders, I ask myself what this design was meant to convey.
Maybe nothing in Washington D.C. But here, of course, it conveys that this is Washington area. Originally placed nearer to the Chesapeake River that flows next to the house, it was a marker for sailors and any other mariner.
Scot Hill, the resident expert and Park Service employee, filled me in. The last time Washington had visited had been in 1770, and the original house had burned down in 1779. It was not until 1850 that George Washington park Custis arrived to commemorate the site. He saw a chimney and placed a marker on the spot so that visitors would know where the house was. Eventually the marker was replaced by the obelisk.
In the 1920s, the Wakefield National Memorial Association purchased the land in order to commemorate Washington. They worked with the Park Association, but the two groups had differing views of how to treat the place. For the Park Service, the marker was enough, and those who visited would have to rely on their imaginations to get them closer to the house and its time. Wakefield wanted to do more, and they built a house on the spot where the obelisk had been. The obelisk was moved out front, so that people driving by could see it and know that they had come to the right place.
There was a problem though. In 1936 archeologists discovered that the original marker that had been placed by Custis was incorrect. In fact, the kitchen had been an outside kitchen. Therefore, Custis had not marked where the house was at all, but where the outside kitchen was. And they had built a house with the idea of celebrating the precise spot. But they were wrong.
There are now two newly created houses on the property, but the place where the house actually was is marked not by a house, but by a designation of stones which outlines the area. Scot and his associate Yusuf told me the disappointment that many feel when they discover the house is not real and that it is not even put on the correct place. Still, the truth must be told – not much point in any of this if you don’t do that – and here, it is.
Besides, it isn’t the house that matters so much when it comes to Washington – any Washington – it’s the land. The area is absolutely gorgeous, with luscious trees that allows a glimpse of the river just beyond them. Numerous fences have been created, with many of the types of animals that may have wandered and grazed in young George Washington’s time – pigs, horses, a large bull. Kitchens and working shops are also there.
It is the land of a successful man. Yet, it is the land of a man not quite successful enough. The Virginia Neck, one comes to feel, was not exactly in the most prestigious part of town. No, it would not do to have a large land if that land was cut off by the movers and the shakers. If Augustine was going to become one of the gentry, he would need even more land, and would need it in a more prominent area.
And this he would find. Still, Washington returned to his first house often when he got older, spending time with Lawrence here.
Did I feel Washington here, feel the remnants of the child that was born in this very spot? Maybe not, but I felt his place, which is almost the same thing. This was a place that was almost good enough, but not quite. Not enough for his father or his brother; and, therefore, not enough for him either.
The dad, by the way, is represented by the wine bottle that was discovered recently on the site that still shows his initials. These are the things we leave behind. Of course, the more important thing he left behind is George himself.
 Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. (The Penguin Press, New York) 2010, p. 4.