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Mount Vernon Memories: Thoughts Of Military Might, Constitutional Compromises, And Too Many Teenagers

June 18, 2017

As I walked the long hall at Mount Vernon I thought of what it must have been like to see George Washington, perhaps after his arrival back home after duties with the Revolutionary War, or perhaps as an older man following two terms as president.  He would open the doors to the large front of the house and look out on the sloping hill that bent down towards the Potomac River.   Throughout the day spent at the home of our first president I tried to stop and just reflect what that place represented.  Who had stood on those grounds, felt the heat and humidity, and pondered the great issues of a people who championed liberty.  They had to not only grapple with how to attain freedom from England but then later when the union of colonies was created determine how to manage and adapt to the  growing and changing demands of nationhood.

How many times might Washington have seen this view from his home porch and wanted so badly to stay and enjoy the beauty but still felt the call to participate in the frothy construction of a new nation?

From down the slope of the hill one can perhaps image the tall and sturdy-built man looking out from his grand home.

I admit to only once over the entire trip wanting to spin around and inform a large group of school children ranging in ages from 7th graders to freshman in high school to “Shut up”, or some variation thereof.   May is the month every state sends this age of student on a class trip and only a very small percentage that I witnessed over 10 days had any care or interest in any part of what they saw.  They could have been at a beach or theme park and had just as much fun.  Their absence from D.C. would have made it so much more enjoyable for all the rest.

So it was as we passed the room at Mount Vernon where receptions would take place for the likes of Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry that I wanted to tell these sweaty teenagers to stop and think about the place they stood and who had graced these halls and helped usher in a grand experiment that still plays out today in this land.  If these walls could talk!

There is no way to be at this home and know the role of Washington and the times in which he lived without feeling the chasm of the stated ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence on the one hand and the sad reality on the other of how blacks were used as slaves.  The kitchen table of Martha always had a Virginia ham and places were usually set for many as Washington was adored and honored by visitors.  There was food to be made in the kitchen at the end of the home so to not heat up the residence.  Clothes and household items needed to be washed six days a week.  The slave quarters were small and would have been wretchedly hot.  There were over 8,000 acres in Washington’s hands and slaves made those farms economically sound.

Reading since a teenager of the disputes at the Constitutional Convention and the needed compromises to ensure passage by the states is one thing.  But it was really sobering to be where the joining of such high laudable hopes that Washington symbolized also was met and meshed with the immoral nature of slavery.  There was no way to walk on a very steamy Virginia day past the place where slaves would have toiled at washing or weeding crops and then look back up where the home was located and know who lived there and what was proclaimed in a document from 1776 and not feel another heat hotter than that of the sun.  It was that real of a feeling for me.

Granted, that perhaps comes from my love of history and all that I have read over the years.  On the way home that day I wondered how many others who made that same tour felt the same sense of unease and discomfort and pondered the complexities that some of the Founding Fathers lived every day.

The start of the end of Washington’s life has been told often–my favorite historian of this era, Joseph Ellis–writes the best narrative in His Excellency.  Bad weather and a long horse ride and wet clothes is the start of the end.  At Mount Vernon the resting place for the first First Couple is simple and yet quite remarkable.  It was one of four presidential burial sites we visited on this trip.

The resting place for President George Washington (below)

 

The resting place for Martha Washington (below)

I had often read of presidents taking the presidential yacht, USS Sequoia, down the Potomac for evening outings or to show a leader of another country a part of this nation’s charms.  So when James and I planned to visit Mount Vernon the idea of seeing the home of our first president via a trip on the Potomac was simply irresistible.

The War College is but one of the many sites that ones passes.  As it came into view the role that the military plays in the power structure of our nation’s capital was once more most obvious and clear.  The day we visited Capitol Hill there were members of the off-duty military walking about with uniforms emblazoned with medals.  The lady we rented our apartment from worked for the NSA.  The city pays tribute to past wars and soldiers with statuary everywhere.  One could easily sense Jack Ryan could pop out of any scene and get to work.

The military aspect is both historical and also very real.  To see a grouping of large Navy helicopters fly overhead and hear the intense beating of the rotors or to look out on the Potomac and know not so far away the battles that Lincoln was concerned about once raged makes for a sense of pride, and awe, and respect.  It creates a mood and a feel that is old-fashioned and that is just fine.

Needless to say D.C. takes on an epic feeling as you take the river route.  And as we came back to the city there above the fray of politics and all that we have endured for centuries stands the symbol of sturdiness and steadfastness–the Washington Monument.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2017 9:37 PM

    Marilyn,

    http://www.mountvernon.org/plan-your-visit/directions-parking-transportation/visit-mount-vernon-by-boat/

  2. Marilyn permalink
    June 21, 2017 12:35 PM

    Did not know there was a boat ride down the Potomac. Will look into it. Have not been to Mount Vernon since the ’60’s. Planning trip for the fall (after kids are in school).

  3. June 19, 2017 3:24 PM

    Agreed, David. We bought a flag that was flown at Mount Vernon and will use it on our pole only for July 4th. Mount Vernon is truly an inspirational place in this nation.

  4. June 19, 2017 2:14 PM

    “I admit to only once over the entire trip wanting to spin around and inform a large group of school children ranging in ages from 7th graders to freshman in high school to “Shut up.”

    Here, too. A high school class ruined it for me on my second trip to the big house at Mount Vernon. Fortunately, my first trip was pristine. Mount Vernon truly is a holy place in the American firmament.

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