Experiencing Mount Vernon: Eyewitness Accounts, 1784-1865

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George Washington, acutely aware of the accomplishments and potential of the American Revolution, used his Mount Vernon estate both to preserve the memory of events that had created a new nation and to forward his keen vision of what that nation might become. During the 1780s and 1790s, an era when neither public museums nor a national library existed, visitors to Mount Vernon viewed John Trumbull's iconic image of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Houdon's famous bust of the country's preeminent hero, and Washington's voluminous wartime correspondence. More important, they listened as the Washingtons recalled the remarkable events that had forged independence and the unique American experiment in representative government. At Mount Vernon, too, Washington and his guests discussed how best to secure the success and well-being of the United States. Here was a place to contemplate "what the nation, at its best, might be."

Following George and Martha Washington's deaths, the estate passed to four successive heirs, the last of whom deeded it to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1860. While still in private hands, the property nonetheless attracted thousands of visitors each year, most of whom arrived after a fifteen-mile overland trek from Washington, D.C. With the establishment of regular steamboat access in the 1850s, the numbers swelled to ten thousand annually. The public claimed Mount Vernon as its own. In the words of a nineteenth-century Washington family member, "the Nation shares it with us."

In a remarkable display of civic religion that testified to the site's enormous hold on the public imagination, Americans pronounced Mount Vernon sacred ground and made it the nation's most important site of revolutionary memory and inspiration. The sacred ground was, nonetheless, contested ground: visitors criticized the heirs' management of the property; northerners abhorred the persistence of slavery at the estate. As pilgrims contemplated the highest ideals of the Revolution at Washington's home and tomb, they often found their own society wanting. Amid escalating sectional strife in the 1850s, some argued that if Mount Vernon could be saved for the nation, the nation might be preserved from ruin.

In letters and journals, newspaper and magazine articles, and public speeches, visitors recorded, often in detail and with intense emotion, their varied reactions to the site. Experiencing Mount Vernon presents the most informative of these accounts, as well as selected documents from the Washington owners (beginning with Washington himself, who in 1784 prematurely wrote Lafayette that, at his beloved home, he had "retired from all public employments"). Numerous maps, contemporary images, and annotations complement the texts. This book constitutes the only eyewitness chronicle we have of the Washington estate's ascent to the status of national shrine, and it offers the closest possible evidence of Mount Vernon's singular role in helping forge American national identity.

University of Virginia Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813925158
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jean B. Lee, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is the author of The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County.

University of Virginia Press

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Table of Contents

"A private citizen on the banks of the Potomac" 19
"Two of the richest days of my life" 20
"The first man in the world" 26
Laboring hands 36
A model for the nation 47
Dinner and talk of the new Constitution 54
"Washington has something uncommonly majestic and commanding in his walk, his address, his figure and his countenance" 56
"They hoped they would no longer be slaves in ten years" 67
Acute observations : from domestic pursuits to concern for the nation 69
"Tranquil happiness reigns" 88
Dinner with the widow Washington 93
Mount Vernon during Martha Washington's last days 95
"Ingratitude is upon us" : a letter to a friend in Richmond 103
Sold : fifty-four Negroes 108
Public property? 116
No eating, drinking, and dancing parties allowed 118
The Fourth of July : from the National Intelligencer 119
Lafayette's return 123
Shock and consolation 126
Improprieties and threats : from the Microcosm 127
"These grounds should be the property of the nation" 129
Overwhelmed by the nation's history : from the Family Magazine 131
A death in the family : the account of an anonymous physician 135
"A glorious remembrance" 138
Going to ruin 143
Mecca of the mind : from the New-England Magazine 146
"I was never more disappointed in my life" 151
An inheritance shared with the nation 157
"Marked and scratched all over" 158
A rare opportunity : M**** 160
The new proprietor 164
"Without thinking that we trespassed" 166
"A voice now calls, which should touch a responsive chord in every heart" : from the Democratic Union 169
Preserve this "landmark on the highway of human freedom" 174
An appeal to the North and the South : Mrs. C**** 180
"The most delightful day of our lives" : "rambler" 184
Yielding to the desires of the public : from the New-York Daily Tribune 189
A staff for the Holy Land 190
A visit from Kossuth : W. T. C. 192
Enter the ladies 197
A progress report 198
"Holy ground, sacred pleasure" 202
Homage and anguish : a letter written on board the U.S.-Pawnee 206
Soldiers and shawls 208
Whither Washington? : from the New York Times 209
"We are overrun with soldiers" 211
"Vandals looking for relics" 214
"We believe the place where we are standing to be holy" 216
App The Washingtons of Mount Vernon 225
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