The love of my country will be the ruling influence of my conduct… George Washington
I got to touch George Washington’s handrail while climbing the stairs at his Virginia home Mount Vernon. George Washington walked these stairs and maybe touched this handrail himself.
To be fair, everyone on the tour did the same and you could too. In fact, people have probably been touching Washington’s handrail since the house became a tourist destination over 150 years ago.
Even knowing that it’s an option available to the masses, it still felt like a special experience. After all, when you go on historic home tours you are typically asked to refrain from touching or photographing anything. In fact, they would likely prefer you didn’t breathe in some of those houses if that were a reasonable request.
Yet Mount Vernon is incredibly accessible. Tours are small and non-flash photography is encouraged. They invite guests to sit a spell on the back porch – listen to how Appalachian I am! They call it a piazza.
While Washington is the quintessential founding father of our nation, it is women who have protected and preserved his home for the public to enjoy all these years after his death.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association acquired the home in 1858. They bought it from Washington’s great-grand nephew and have since set the gold star for preservation, restoration and public accessibility for important historic homes.
A century later, those ladies caught wind that an oil tank farm was rumored for the banks of the Potomac River. This development would destroy the incredible view from the mansion’s piazza. Mrs. Frances Payne Bolton, Vice Regent for Ohio of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, purchased nearly 500 acres of that land which led her to organize one of the nation’s earliest land trusts.
President Kennedy would later sign into law the creation of the Piscataway National Park thus preserving this spectacular shoreline.
Restoration work is still constant and there is a great sense of care about the work being done here.
All walks of life tour this site every year. You hear lots of accents and other languages here. When my friend and I emerged from the path that leads from the visitor center to the home we were staring at the view made so famous by postcards, movies, textbooks and even commemorative plates.
We stood there absorbing the moment, each of us likely revisiting memories of what the house means to us. I was grateful to still have this place with its stately design and driveway lined with enormous old trees. It feels historic and it feels important.
This home, the estate and the man mean different things to different people. Washington is immortalized in a familiar portrait on our money and in a host of other ways. He was a smart man, always thinking and evolving, and not afraid to change his mind when new information became available.
There are many stories I could tell you from my visit here and some that I may circle back to another day. However, one thing that stands out in my memories is standing inside a building used for slave quarters. I believe it held bunk beds for ten. The space was sparse and depressing, fitting for a place that once held humans in bondage.
I cannot fathom what it was like to live here. I cannot imagine what it was like to be a wealthy white person whose livelihood and success, whose everyday life depended on the institution of slavery.
Everything they had, everything they hoped to be was possible because of the hundreds of enslaved souls who worked here throughout Washington’s life.
I read that Washington accepted slavery when he was a young man but began to question it after the Revolutionary War. He chose to keep his thoughts to himself for fear of dividing our young country. In his will, Washington ordered that his slaves be freed following his wife Martha’s death. I can’t help but wonder how things might be different had he expressed his views during his lifetime.
The tour here is exceptional. I appreciate that they tackle some tough issues factually and without apology while defining Washington’s place in our history.
If you go, there’s a great museum that I’ll tell you about another day. You can visit the final resting place of the President and First Lady while touring the grounds. There’s a cafe and a food truck and a fantastic gift shop with an amazing book section.
You could literally spend an entire day here if you wish and I wouldn’t blame you because it’s so well done.
Even with all the movies we’ve seen over the years, it’s still hard to imagine life in those days. I feel like I had a little better grasp on it as a child than I do now. Things have changed so much just in my lifetime. When I visited Mt. Vernon as a kid, no one was standing in line staring at a cell phone! It was such a peaceful, bucolic place.
Times have changed. Some things for the better, some not so much. I hiked this morning and encountered a woman on the trail who was staring at her phone while walking. There’s no service out there so I have no idea what she was looking at but it completely bummed me out.
Let’s think positive and hope she was looking at her trail app (you can use them without having cell service).
Yes! Let’s aim for optimism.