Our GPS wanted us to drive to what later looked to be Mount Vernon’s original driveway. The sprawling grounds in front of the historic 21-room mansion were only interrupted by a short red brick wall and white wooden gates. Then the green lawn sprawled again to a tree line and grassy narrowing. The white gates were open with one side sitting picturesquely cockeyed. It was a perfect family photo op with Mount Vernon’s white façade and red shingles in the very distant background.
At first, the kids (myself included), had been thinking, whoopee, another historical building. But that soon changed. This was more than a house. It was 50 plantation acres that included a distillery, slave cabin, blacksmith shop, gristmill, greenhouse, beautiful gardens, tomb and even a dung repository.
“That’s right kids! I’ll bet this trip really stinks now,” I said. Then I paused and scratched my head silently lipping, “Wait-what?”
Washington’s estate once spanned 8,000 acres and his total land ownership topped 50,000 acres. At the time, it made him one of the country’s top land owners.
It was nice to be there early for our tour because by Noon, you’ll see just how popular George Washington is to this day. For a man considered one of the greatest Americans of his time and all-time, he sure suffered from humility. Among the highly educated founding fathers, he had no college education. In his career, he lost more battles than he won. He never had children of his own. And his dental misery began at the young age of 24. His cosmetic attempts to hide his chronic teeth and gum problems included false teeth made of bone, ivory, lead, and other material. Washington’s account books even have an entry showing he purchased nine teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. But never did he have wooden teeth!
Another legend that I hoped couldn’t be true was that of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River. On a leisurely walk I found myself at the river’s edge. While the family rested, I picked up a small rock and heaved it as far as I could. Then I tried skipping a stone. I was left thinking either my muscles were as bad as Washington’s gums or the first President had supernatural strength. In case you are wondering, the river is about a mile wide at Mount Vernon.
Towering over the mansion is a tree said to be a sapling when Washington lived at the estate. When I heard this, I was intrigued. My mind loves absorbing little known things that lead to a profound appreciation that otherwise wouldn’t have been obtained. As I stood in the shade, I admired the trunk, bark, branches and leaves of this living connector of time that I could now touch, and that our first President no doubt also touched. Small talk ensued with others marveling at this tree we all could have cared less about minutes earlier.
Then, someone in our randomly formed gathering pointed at the octagonal cupola at the center of the mansion’s roof and said it was influenced by the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg. Having just come from there and next going to Washington D.C., it fascinated me how many of these stops would weave together our “magical history tour” up the east coast.
Washington was known to be an excellent dancer, the best horseman of his day and the foremost farmer of America. He was unanimously elected first President of the United States in 1789 by the Electoral College. There was no popular vote for president then. And he was the first to sign the Constitution.
Although the White House was under construction at his namesake, Washington D.C., which is only 16 miles north of Mount Vernon, George Washington is the only president not to occupy it. He served his two terms, before volunteering to not run for a third, at, then, the U.S. capital in New York City followed by Philadelphia.
Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building in 1793. The building was later supposed to entomb his body but instead, he is now resting in peace with Martha, his wife, at Mount Vernon. Visitors can view the tomb. To see the two sarcophaguses next to each other inside the tomb seemed to transcend time again in the most peculiar way.
Washington’s Will directed that all of his slaves be freed upon his wife’s death. There were about 300 slaves at Mount Vernon upon his death. His first slave was inherited when he was just 11-years-old. Upon Martha’s death, some 153 remaining slaves were indeed freed. He was the only president to have all of his slaves freed. I thought back to Monticello. It struck me as odd that Jefferson didn’t do the same, especially considering some of his slaves were, literally, family!
In 1983, a slave memorial was added to Mount Vernon, close by the president’s tomb. A gray granite column represents “life unfinished.” Three steps and brick circles lead up to it, each step with an inscription.
The first is “Faith,” then “Hope” and finally “Love ”.
These are said to represent the virtues that sustained those living in bondage. It overlooks an unmarked slave burial site. Legend says the bodies below were buried with their feet towards the east to symbolize their return to Africa.
We left Mount Vernon on that somber note for …Arlington Cemetery.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!