Mount Vernon is one of my favorite historical properties in the United States. You almost can’t help but feel sheer pride in the visionary greatness of George Washington, and I think that is in large part a credit to those who are charged with maintaining and presenting the property to visitors. With it’s striking placement on the bluffs overlooking the Potomac River, and the imposing presentation over massive lawns, or “bowling greens” as they were properly called, the entire estate is one beautiful idyllic view after another, and the colonial garden is especially lovely. I visited in December, and it was still producing vegetables and herbs.
As you walk through the grounds, you’ll most certainly encounter one of the many guides who seem to have made it a mission in life to make sure you see and appreciate the history around you. They are full of information and historical tidbits that will seriously improve your experience, and you should definitely engage them with all sorts of questions. There is a guided tour of the mansion that keeps everyone moving along at a closely metered pace, while still managing to focus your attention on the key elements of each room. I have visited in the late spring/early summer when lines for the tour were quite long (you’ll get a ticket indicating what time you should get in line), but in early December this was not an issue at all and the wait for the next tour was about 30 seconds. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside. I can give you a bit of a feel for what it’s like though, because there is an architectural miniature of the entire structure available to see in the visitor’s center.
It is very easy to walk the grounds of Mount Vernon and appreciate George and Martha Washington’s vision for the estate. It is also easy to see why they hosted hundreds of visitors each year, because I’m telling you, this place is definitely something to see.
The prime location on the Potomac River, from which the mansion is easily visible, also ultimately led to its long term survival.
The Mount Vernon Ladies Association
The most interesting thing to me about Mount Vernon is that it nearly didn’t survive. By the mid 19th century, the home had fallen into such disrepair that the east front of the mansion (the side facing the Potomac) was bowing and had to be propped up with large beams. Neither the federal government nor the state of Virginia were willing to purchase the property. Fortunately, into the story stepped Ann Pamela Cunningham, who’s mother had seen the dilapidated state of the mansion during a trip up the Potomac and was horrified. She sent a letter to her daughter explaining what she saw, commenting, “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
Cunningham took up the challenge and got busy organizing the women of the south, despite the cultural norms which resisted her.When her initial efforts to rally southern women were successful, she expanded them to include women in the northern states, and found willing participants. Cunningham wanted to filter the contributions through the Governors of the various estates, but got no where with that strategy because tensions were building between the north and south, and so, in 1854 the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union was formed. Clearly, Cunningham was a woman with both wealth and connections. The organization managed to raised the funds needed to buy the property, but then promptly met a hurdle when the owner, John Augustine Washington III, a descendant of George Washington, initially scoffed at the idea of selling it to women. Cunningham met with the man’s wife (and boy, would I like to have been a fly on the wall at that conversation), after which a sale ensued and Washington remarked, “Under the circumstances, and believing that after the two highest powers in the country, the women of the land will probably be the safest, as they will certainly be the purest, guardians of a national shrine, I am willing so far to comply with your request.” I still want to know what his wife said to him.
The all female Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association continues to own and oversee the property to this day. This is not a small enterprise. Today, Mount Vernon attracts over one million visitors each year. As of year end 2015, the assets of the organization exceeded $275 million, with very little debt. Annual expenses of roughly $54 million are primarily met through contributions and admission fees to the property, although a trip to the gift shop explains why profits there are also a significant contributor to income. The shops are filled with a well balanced blend of offerings that include colonial toys, the requisite t-shirts and card decks, but also beautifully crafted jewelry and colonial inspired home goods. They’re fun to walk though just on their own! Food concessions are another important area of contribution, which is something to keep in mind when the cashier tells you how much you owe her for a bottle of water. It’s a lot.
Enslaved People at Mount Vernon
There is a new exhibit at Mount Vernon that highlights the lives and contributions of enslaved people at Mount Vernon, and as you walk the grounds their stories are incorporated into the overall historical education. On the back of the building next to the flower garden, there are two rooms for visitors to look at which attempt to demonstrate the difficult and crowded conditions that were provided for George Washington’s enslaved people. My reaction to these spaces was that they looked a bit like they would offer about the same amount of general suffering as an overcrowded dorm room, and while the space was clearly in contrast to the beautiful mansion that Washington himself lived in, I didn’t feel they captured the actually daily living circumstances of enslaved people.
I keep using that term, enslaved people. There’s a reason for it. The word slave, to me, implies someone “other”, someone “less” and really, not about me as an economically secure white woman in the 21st century. Enslaved person or enslaved people on the other hand, reintroduces back the concept that the person referred to had their rights stripped away from them. Words matter, and this trip to Mount Vernon was the first time I encountered the idea of changing the words I use to describe the enslaved people of that time. It introduced a perspective shift, and I am all about that!
I have to say, like the presentation of the living quarter, the presentation of the estate overall feels a little off to me, in that there seems to be a bit of a desire at Mount Vernon to cast George Washington as a reluctant owner of enslaved people, and I’m not convinced that’s true. I know that he spoke in support of the abolishment of slavery during his lifetime, and provided instructions for the freedom of those enslaved to his estate upon his death, but arranging for their freedom after he would no longer be around to deal with what that might look like, does not strike me as being particularly noble. I discovered last year that I had an ancestor who did that as well, and when I found out about it, it pissed me off. It was a male ancestor who freed an enslaved woman who lived with him, and according to the terms of his will he also “gave” her the furniture in her room. I don’t know anything else about the woman, but it made me angry to think that he selfishly waited until the woman was no longer of any use to him before legally releasing her. I wondered what happened next to her. She would have been at the mercy of very bad economics, and without any connections or money of her own, what were her options? Could she read and write? Did she have a marketable vocation? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions but I can guess. In the case of Washington, we do know that he at least had a plan to address some of those issues:
“Upon the decease [of] my wife, it is my Will and desire th[at] all the Slaves which I hold in [my] own right, shall receive their free[dom] . . . . The Negroes thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read and write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children. And I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever.”
Still, I remain skeptical towards efforts to cast Washington as some kind of anti-slavery advocate. While the words above appear to indicate concern for their welfare, I’m not aware of any funds being set aside to provide for education or vocational training, or a path forward once they were legally released. Yes, I know times were different. Whatever his original plan was, Martha Washington released the enslaved people on her plantation after George died, apparently due to her fear they would revolt.
There is a memorial on the estate which honors the enslaved people who lived at Mount Vernon, and the new exhibit attempts to address this as well, but like at Antietam, I didn’t feel like this was the place to explore the lives of the enslaved people of that time. The focus here is on Washington’s vision, with attempts to acknowledge the contribution of the enslaved people who kept the estate profitable and running.
Overall impressions: Mount Vernon is a beautifully preserved estate that holds an important part of our nation’s history. It truly was the first White House. I enjoyed visiting it more in the off season, when the heat and crowds weren’t part of the experience, but the gardens are extraordinary and better viewed during the growing season. I’ve been back twice now, so I’m definitely a fan!
Total spent for this trip:
Breakfast: Denny’s Restaurant in Alexandria, VA – $12
Admission to Mount Vernon: $20
Late lunch for two people at the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant – $50 and an excellent meal!
Post card: $0.53
Hotel: Alexandria Comfort Inn, 2 nights – $166