Friday, November 18, 2011

Mount Vernon

This trip to Washington wouldn’t be complete without the side trip to Mount Vernon, Washington’s plantation on the banks of the Potomac.

Some things we all know about Washington simply are not true, and some truer than we know. He didn’t cut down a cherry tree and then not lie about it. That was a fable made up to represent his honesty to children, concocted by a storyteller. He did however make the point repeatedly that the Presidency should not be a lifelong kingly job, but rather the President should be an elected official whose primary interest is in what is good for the country. It’s a country by the people and for the people.  Unlike Napoleon and others he did not succumb to the temptation to accept “kingship”, but rather repeatedly said the leader must rise up as a leader, and do as the people want, not the other way round. That’s a lesson that might use some reviewing in today’s political climate.

He also fervently believed that people should have freedom of choice when it came to religion. He went to every kind of religious organization to assure people there, that he would defend their right to worship, and that there would never be a state religion. 

He was a slave owner, but as he aged, he saw that slavery was not an institution that should be allowed to continue if the country is truly the land of the free. But it was such an entrenched economic system he wouldn’t have been able to change it in his lifetime. So he freed his own slaves upon his death, and even bequeathed them money and land. He hoped to set an example for other slave owners, but of the seven slave-owning Presidents, he’s the only one who set his charges free. Of course it’s more complex, the slaves he ‘owned’ weren’t all his, more than half belonged to his wife, and even she was in no position to set them free as they were part of a larger estate that was under the control of her brothers, who weren’t about to start paying wages!! Plus many of his slaves had intermarried with hers and to leave the plantation would have been to leave their families, so quite a few stayed.

Mount Vernon is owned now by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, originally a group of wealthy and influential women who purchased it in 1859, just before the Civil War, then proceeded to keep it neutral, since it was the home of everyone’s first President. It was a tough thing to do as it sits right on the cusp of the North and South: in Virginia but not far at all from Maryland. Several books were for sale in the shop telling the details of that fascinating story.  There is a $15 fee to take the tour, and the docents are volunteers who did an excellent job.  The facility has an educational center with museum, displays, life sized figures of Washington at various stages in life, videos, and an interactive movie, in which the chairs vibrate when cannons are shot off and real snow falls from the ceiling during the “Crossing the Delaware” scene. Fall and probably spring are the perfect times to visit as there are no crowds. Clearly the place is set up to handle hoards of people, there are signs next to roped off areas saying “Only twenty minutes wait for the Mansion tour from this point.”  While you wait in line you can take a gander at the Mansions “necessary house”, the privy. It had drawers underneath for easy removal of waste. Washington was a farmer who believed in recycling everything; all animal waste went into the compost shed which can be seen on the grounds after the mansion tour. And it was full of manure from the many sheep, goats, cows, and horses still living there.

The home itself has been restored to look as much as possible the way it looked the day Washington died. I was a bit shocked at the vibrant colors of the walls. The formal dining room is verdigris, a lighter shade than the same color in the less formal dining room. It is a rich almost malachite jewel tone. Other rooms were blue, rose, and creams with accent colors. Not the stodgy conservative rooms I expected to see. His study/library has floor to ceiling bookcases, a dressing room off to one side, and the chair he used while in office.  The kitchen is in another building accessible down a covered walkway. His cook and his butler (slaves) were married and lived upstairs in the kitchen house. The third floor and other buildings were not open but parts could be seen from the open doorways and windows. There was a wash house where laundry was done daily, with a yard out back for hanging up the linens and clothes. With over 600 guests yearly, I imagine they did a LOT of laundry.


(A note: my little Canon has quit working, so I was unable to download the photos for Mt. Vernon. Come back sometime in the next week, and if I can, I'll upload some nice photos I took while there.)