Standing in George Washington’s study at Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate, I was unexpectedly overcome by emotion. It was there that he would dress at 4:30 in the morning so as not to disturb wife Martha upstairs, perhaps getting to the business of running his farm at a small desk with its fan chair. (You pedaled it and a fan moved back and forth overhead, the technology of the day.) In the corner stood a handsome, polished secretary.
“I feel his presence strongly here,” I told the tour guide as I exited the room ,the last of our group. “I’m glad you came,” she said.
She and the other guides refer to Washington merely as “The General.” Why? Because G.W. thought there should be only one president at a time. So, when he retired to Mount Vernon after two terms as president in 1797, Washington insisted on being called by his military rank. Washington could’ve gone on as president. Instead he set a precedent of only two terms that was broken by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. (It was later enshrined by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.) In this, the tour guide in his study said, Washington was different from other leaders. He knew how to use power and, thus, knew how to let it go.
With all the challenges facing our government today, we should feel good about this, she said.
For those who’ve never visited Mount Vernon, it is precisely the kind of historic site the father of our country deserves with first-rate interactive, multimedia exhibits; crisp tours of the mansion; spectacular views of the light-dappled Potomac River; an inn serving tasty fare; and enticing gift shops.
The site pulls no punches regarding the people who are now called “the enslaved workers” on the estate, rather than slaves, underscoring their humanity or Washington’s ambivalence toward slavery. (While he came to rue it and freed those enslaved workers at his death in 1799, that didn’t change their legal status and situation much.)
Washington must be seen in the context of his time. That doesn’t excuse his slaveholding. He was a flawed human being but he was a man of courage with no dangerous demagogic pretenses, unlike some people we know.
Our visit included a stop by his relatively modest grave. I couldn’t help but wonder if he is spinning in it.
For more, visit mountvernon.org.