At the Altar of George Washington

At the Altar of George Washington

My visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia plantation, started off as something of a pilgrimage.  I have always loved house museums.  More than just static historic artifacts, a good house museum preserves and communicates not just the building and the decor, but how its occupants lived their lives.  Visitors can actually step inside, momentarily inhabit the spaces, and walk in the footsteps of history.  When done well, historic buildings are just about as close as we can get to time travel.

The view from the back portico at Mount Vernon, across the Potomac River and into Maryland, remains largely undeveloped due in part to the efforts of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

The view from the back portico at Mount Vernon, across the Potomac River and into Maryland, remains largely undeveloped due in part to the efforts of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

And Mount Vernon is essentially the original house museum, and the earliest example of historic preservation in the United States.  After a multi-year fundraising campaign, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association purchased Washington’s home and 200 surrounding acres in 1860, from a descendent who could no longer afford its upkeep.  In the intervening years, the organization not only restored the home, but also rebuilt many of the agricultural and service buildings on the estate, and even advocated to preserve a viewshed from the home that stretches across the Potomac River and into Maryland.  The Mount Vernon Ladies Association has also been a leader in reconstructing and commemorating the history of slavery on the plantation, even offering a dedicated Enslaved People of Mount Vernon Tour.  To this day, tours of the house and plantation are led by members of Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

With time to spare after spending Independence Day weekend in Washington, DC this past summer, I decided to take a long detour on my way to Dulles Airport to visit Mount Vernon.  When I arrived I had just missed the start of the Enslaved People tour for the morning, and I didn’t have time to stay for the afternoon tour, so I settled for the House Tour, and a Garden Tour.

Because of the large number of visitors, especially during the summer holiday week, the house tour is essentially one continuous, slow-moving queue.  Subdivided into smaller groups, the queue winds from room to room, greeted at each new stop by a different tour guide, armed with perfectly timed talking points for each space.  (Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed inside the house.)  I always expect at least a little exaggeration on these kinds of tours, but the near-constant portrayal of Washington as a simple country farmer seemed a little far fetched standing in the lavishly decorated “New Room,” where guests were entertained.

A Peculiar Legacy

The house tour ends in George Washington’s study.  It is a large, high-ceilinged space, which comes as a relief after passing through a series of small upstairs bedrooms, tight hallways, and narrow stairways.  Up to this point, the tour had been relatively uneventful, peppered with the typical house-museum fodder of anecdotes intended to convey a “things were so different back then” feeling; the kinds of stories that make these places most compelling.  But the narrative comes to its denouement in the study, where stories of Washington the country gentleman turn to stories of Washington the statesman.  The guide in this room recounted the many legacies of Washington: leading the Continental Army, serving as the first President of the United States, voluntarily stepping down after two terms.

But then she made an odd shift.  She proclaimed that none of these were Washington’s greatest legacies, a statement that instantly struck me as odd.  What had I forgotten from history?  What other great achievement had slipped my mind?  Instead of all of his military and political success, this guide contended, Washington’s greatest legacy—this man who led our infant nation to improbable military glory, who served as our first President, and who could have reigned as King but willingly gave up power—was that he freed his slaves when he died.  

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe I grew up too far west to fully grasp the lasting impact of slavery.  Maybe I am racked by my internalised coastal urban liberal white guilt.  But this statement, that George Washington’s single greatest legacy was that he freed his slaves when he died, shocked me.  It shocked me.  It struck me as utterly and incredibly tone-deaf.

What was she trying to say?  Was this supposed to somehow absolve Washington of the fact that he had personally owned slaves since the age of 11?  That the house we were standing in, the gardens that surround it, the farms and fields that made it all possible, had been built by slaves?  Was it somehow now okay that he had literally owned other humans as chattel, because when he died, when he no longer had personal use for these humans, they were set free?  George Washington was no abolitionist.  He may have had personal misgivings about the institution of slavery, but those misgivings clearly did not stop him from participating it in for his entire life.  So how is it possible that this could be his greatest legacy?  

I left the house tour feeling perplexed and uneasy.  Perhaps, I thought, this was just a one-off fluke.  The guides rotate through the various rooms in the house, maybe this guide was just adding some strangely misguided personal flair to her tour.  

The massive front lawn at Mount Vernon.

The massive front lawn at Mount Vernon.

After the shock of the house tour, the garden tour started off on what seemed like a more historically honest tone.  Standing on the expansive “bowling green” in front of the house, the guide described how it took five slaves with scythes, working dawn to dusk, to keep the grass trimmed to the appropriate length, how they started at the top of the lawn in front of the house, working their way down the lawn over the course of several days of trimming, and how, once they reached the bottom of the lawn, it would be time to start over again at the top.  This was the reality of Mount Vernon that I wanted to know.

But any semblance of awareness was shattered only a few minutes later when we came to the reconstructed greenhouse, built in 1951 and incorporating repurposed bricks from the White House, which had been undergoing renovations at the time.  This tidbit provided the guide with the opportunity to mention that a long and unbroken line of sitting Presidents had come to visit Mount Vernon, except, her voice turning from pride to disdain, “our current President.”

This time I wasn’t shocked.  The tone she took has become familiar in the past eight years of the Obama Presidency, wielded so often when white conservatives took offense at any perceived slight from the black President.  What surprised me this time was the other tour-goers, who grumbled along with the guide, as if they couldn’t possibly imagine why the first black President would not want to visit a plantation built on the backs of black slave labor.  

Regardless of the guide’s personal or political motivations, or the shortsightedness of her scorn, it turns out her story wasn’t even true.  Presidents Carter and Clinton never visited Mount Vernon during their terms either.  Embellishing and exaggerating history, it seems, was not a fluke but a feature at Mount Vernon.

“But Still They Are Slaves”

I may never know if I would have received a more honest, more nuanced, more complicated telling of the story of Mount Vernon if I had managed to take the Enslaved People tour.  But I could still explore the rest of the estate on my own.  I wanted to see the reconstructed slave cabin (one of very few such examples in the United States), and the unique 16-sided barn.  I wanted to see the unseen parts of the plantation that made the famous house possible.

One of my first stops was the Slave Memorial, where the realities of the plantation came into clearer focus.  A large sign described the basics of “Slavery at Mount Vernon,” and instantly called into question the assertion of Washington’s greatest legacy.

A sign near the Slave Memorial explains the details of Slavery at Mount Vernon.

A sign near the Slave Memorial explains the details of Slavery at Mount Vernon.

Far from the broad emancipation implied in the tour guide’s statement, George Washington was only empowered to free a portion of the slaves on the property (the rest belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, and were bequeathed to his heirs).  And they were not actually freed upon George Washington’s death, but were to be freed upon Martha’s death (she only freed them early out of fear that they might seek to hasten her death).  Technically speaking, George Washington did provide for the freedom of the slaves he personally owned, but it was far from all of the slaves at Mount Vernon, and only once he and his wife no longer had use for them.  This was no legacy-defining act, it was an act of convenience for a man with no heirs.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Official Guidebook makes clear how essential slave labor was to every facet of the estate:

George Washington’s life on his “pleasantly situated” estate relied almost entirely on slave labor.  Slaves worked the fields that were a key basis of his wealth.  They also built the Mansion and its many outbuildings, erected the walls on the grounds, dug the orchard and the gardens, polished the fine furniture and silver, slaughtered hogs for the hams in which Martha Washington took pride, ground wheat at the gristmill, and stirred mash at the distillery.  They cooked and served meals, washed dishes, made butter and cheese, chopped wood for and tended fires in the fireplaces, fed and groomed horses, made clothes, hauled water for bathing, and cared for small children.
A reconstructed slave cabin at Mount Vernon.  The sign near the cabin describes how a family of eight lived in a cabin like this one.

A reconstructed slave cabin at Mount Vernon.  The sign near the cabin describes how a family of eight lived in a cabin like this one.

And yet, the book’s section on slavery at the plantation goes to great pains to detail how Washington was a reluctant slave owner, how he hoped Virginia would take steps towards emancipation, and how his slaves were treated better than average.  But Washington continued to acquire slaves to support his growing estate into the 1770s, and he never risked his own reputation to stand up for the emancipation he supposedly believed in.

All the good intentions in the world could not change the facts.  As Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear noted in 1789, his slaves, “are not treated as blacks in general are in the Country, they are clothed and fed as well as any labouring people whatever and they are not subject to the lash or a domineering Overseer but still they are slaves.”

But still they were slaves.

The Aftermath  

The Civil War ended over 150 years ago, and slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, but in those intervening years we as a nation have systematically ignored that shameful segment of our history, the original sin of our founding.  Our nation has never asked for absolution.  How could we when we barely acknowledge the wrongdoing?  The United States nearly destroyed itself over slavery, and when it was all over the nation collectively looked the other way.  We, as a nation, are struggling with the aftermath of slavery to this day.

When we normalize narratives of so-called “enlightened slaveowners” we minimize the inherent moral abhorrence of slavery, and we enable those who would seek to minimize its horrors.  George Washington led the Continental Army.  He was the first President of United States.  And George Washington owned slaves.

The only way we can truly move forward is to honestly grapple with the most painful parts of our history.  We must acknowledge the real harm we have done as a nation, whether in the form of slavery, genocidal displacement of Native Americans, systematic segregation and disenfranchisement, forced internment of Japanese Americans, or supporting violent coups against democratically elected governments of sovereign nations (to name just a few).  We may not bear individual responsibility for these actions, but we are all products of their outcomes.  

Unless otherwise noted or linked, all historical references in the story were sourced from George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Official Guidebook