The Monumental Legacy of George Washington
Mount Vernon, the first U.S. President’s estate, includes a mansion, lush gardens, farms and museum galleries.
One of the most popular historic sites in the United States is Mount Vernon, the family home of the first U.S. President, George Washington. A working Virginia plantation in the 18th century, Mount Vernon now includes the mansion, whose renovation and expansion President Washington personally guided—even during the American War of Independence. It also has lush gardens, outbuildings where farm activities like blacksmithing and textile weaving are recreated, and museum galleries that portray different aspects of President Washington’s life.
President Washington was a surveyor, explorer, soldier, politician and visionary statesman whose tireless commitment to the newly created United States earned him the title of “Father of His Country.” He was also a man of the earth.
“[President] Washington considered himself first and foremost a farmer. So, the care and updates to Mount Vernon were incredibly important to him, not just from an emotional standpoint, but also from an economic one,” says Mount Vernon spokeswoman Melissa Wood.
The estate was named Mount Vernon by President Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, who inherited it from their father. In 1754, President Washington leased the property from Lawrence’s widow and upon her death in 1761, inherited it. Although his formal education ended around the age of 15, President Washington was an innovative farmer and entrepreneur who worked hard, saved his money and expanded his land holdings. At the time of his death in 1799, his land holdings had expanded from about 809 hectares to approximately 3,237 hectares, consisting of five farms, with more than 1,214 hectares under cultivation. Over a period of 45 years, President Washington also transformed the original structure of the mansion by adding two stories, the north and south wings, a piazza (porch) overlooking the Potomac River, and a pediment and cupola. What is now called “the Mansion” has 21 rooms on three floors, including bedchambers, dining rooms, parlors, a study, a full cellar and President Washington’s last addition—a grand, two-story, multipurpose New Room, large enough to hold most houses that existed in Colonial-era Virginia. Many of the rooms are painted in vivid colors.
As with many historical figures, various myths have been accrued to President Washington. Most visitors ask about his “wooden dentures,” says Wood. “[President] George Washington did not have wooden dentures. He did have false teeth, which are on view. [President] Washington’s dentures were made from a lead base and consisted of human and animal bone.” The story of him throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River, which is more than 1.6 kilometers wide at Mount Vernon, is also a myth. As for chopping down a cherry tree as a six-year-old and owning up to it—an account of that alleged incident appears in an early biography of President Washington—historians say a kernel of truth may have sprouted into an enduring, and endearing, fable.
President Washington’s father, who died in 1743 when his son was 11, left the youngster 10 slaves in his will. President Washington subsequently purchased more slaves to work at the plantation. However, he struggled throughout his life with the institution of slavery. In his will, he stipulated that all his slaves be freed, with those too old or sick to work to be supported by his estate in perpetuity. He was also the only slave-holder among America’s founding fathers to free his slaves. A new exhibition, “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” which will run until September 30, 2018, at the estate, tells the story of his slaves.
Open 365 days a year, Mount Vernon now welcomes more than a million visitors annually, with an increasing number coming from abroad, says Wood. Re-enactors in Colonial-era costumes explain how life was in President Washington’s days, demonstrate skills used on the farm and provide insights into the lives of the Washingtons. On President’s Day, a national holiday, “General Washington” is on hand to accept birthday greetings from visitors.
Admission fees to Mount Vernon range from $20 (Rs. 1,330 approximately) to $12 (Rs. 800 approximately), depending on the visitor’s age. There are a variety of tour options, including Gardens & Groves, Dinner for the Washingtons, Through My Eyes (re-enactors), and All the President’s Pups, a walking tour where visitors can bring along their dogs and learn about President Washington’s first dogs as well as those who live at the estate today.
Located about 24 kilometers south of Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon is accessible by car, by shuttle from Old Town Alexandria in Virginia or by bus from the Huntington Station, both of which can be reached from Washington, D.C., by the Metrorail. Most visitors spend a day at Mount Vernon, with many making it part of a multi-day visit to the U.S. capital. The room rates for hotels or motels near the estate start at about $150 (Rs. 10,000 approximately). Mount Vernon has a comprehensive website that is very useful for organizing a visit.
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.