George Washington's Mount Vernon

George Washington's Mount Vernon

by Wendell Garrett, Susan Gray Detweiler, Wendell Garrett, Edward Owen, Robert C. Lautman

Before the White House, there was Mount Vernon, the home of this nation's first president — George Washington. Profiled here for the first time in full color by award-winning photographers Robert Lautman and Edward Owen and thoroughly documented in eight essays by eminent historians, the fascinating story of Mount Vernon — from Washington's life to the


Before the White House, there was Mount Vernon, the home of this nation's first president — George Washington. Profiled here for the first time in full color by award-winning photographers Robert Lautman and Edward Owen and thoroughly documented in eight essays by eminent historians, the fascinating story of Mount Vernon — from Washington's life to the finely furnished home that he and his wife, Martha, created over the years to the struggle and perseverance of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association to save this national treasure — is presented in this exceptional volume. From the time Washington first leased the house and farm in 1754 until his death in 1799, he increased the estate from 2,126 acres to more than 8,000. Every aspect of Mount Vernon — from the expansion and decoration of the house to the purchase of the silver and china, planting of the gardens, and management of the plantation — was personally handled by Washington. The estate's elegant simplicity has been likened to the personality that so diligently shaped it. Celebrated leaders from all walks of life — including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and almost every American president since Washington — make brief but important appearances in the Mount Vernon saga. In addition to historical significance, the rescue and subsequent restoration of Mount Vernon represent a milestone in America's preservation movement. The exemplary research and implementation of preservation techniques employed in the restoration of Mount Vernon, many of which are detailed here, have set precedents in the field.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Marking the bicentenary of George Washington's death, an exhibition of artifacts from his Virginia estate will travel later this year to museums from coast to coast. Tourists, historians and home stylists with a fondness for Washingtonia won't want to miss what must be one of the first coffee-table books to be published on our first president's home. The essays and photographs (mostly taken by Robert Lautman and Edward Owen) document Washington's manse from all angles in all seasons, showcasing its classical 18th-century architecture and landscape, its furnishings and art works, and its significance as a reflection of Washington, and as a typical upper-class Chesapeake Bay plantation of the period. Because Mount Vernon housed and was worked by slaves, one of the book's more compelling features is its depiction of slave quarters and a monument that was erected in the 20th century in memory of Mount Vernon's slave inhabitants, though these images would have benefited from more detailed commentary. It's the photographs, which take the viewer from the home's landscaped gardens into the large dining room, and finally into the kitchen and wash house, that are the book's strongest point and provide a vivid window onto 18th-century America. More than 300 illustrations (200 in color). (Feb.)
Library Journal
Contrary to the publisher's claims, this is not the "first book ever published on" Mount Vernon, although it does appear to be the first book that combines dozens of dazzling color photographs with scholarly essays. Robert and Lee Dalzell's similarly titled George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America (LJ 7/98) discusses the architecture of Washington's home within the social and political fabric of the time and includes a few dozen small black-and-white photographs. Editor Garrett, former editor of Antiques magazine, instead gives us a carefully balanced collection of superior color portfolios interspersed with nicely crafted historical essays. The essays provide a portrait of George Washington as well as discussions of Mount Vernon's architecture, landscape, furniture, fine arts collections, table- and teawares, and current preservation efforts. A beautiful work recommended for school, public, and academic libraries.--P. Steven Thomas, Central Michigan Univ. Lib., Mt. Pleasant

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The Monacelli Press
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George Washington, Founder and Father of His Country

Wendell Garrett

A fortuitous conjunction of character and destiny over two hundred years ago brought America a leadership of philosopher-statesmen unmatched in its history. These men, extraordinary by the standards of their own day as well as our own, faced the sternest tests confronting our young nation—those of achieving independence and building a durable government. It is difficult to know whether to be more astonished at the boldness and courage or the originality and genius of that generation of incomparable leaders who launched this nation. And above them all, George Washington mattered most.

    Washington would become the central figure in American history and in the American national consciousness, a figure for which there is no close parallel in other great modern nations. John Adams wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1790 that "The history of our revolution will be ... that Dr. Franklin's electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electricized him with his rod, and hence-forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures and war." This role of Washington is especially surprising in light of his rigid and glacial personality. In portraiture and sculpture, Washington never smiled. Jean Antoine Houdon's classic bust froze the features of the virile hero in an austere mold, while in Gilbert Stuart's magisterial Athenaeum portrait, Washington is stolid, serious, and unsmiling, intensely self-conscious of his role as hero-president. These werequalities of mind and spirit that later hagiographers and mythmakers described more often than Washington's bodily features. The predominant concern for character and intellect over physical appearance was revealed by an author writing for the Analectic Magazine who observed: "Even in [the patriots'] busts and portraits, we endeavor to trace the lineaments of their minds." After the enterprising Parson Weems imposed the moralistic fabrications of his apocryphal Washington on the nation—with the prized cherry tree, the prayer at Valley Forge, the grinding ice in the Delaware, the second Cincinnatus returned to the plow, and all the rest—how does one separate the man from the myth?

    George Washington was born on February 11, 1732. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752, eleven days were added, so that Washington's birthday subsequently became February 22. When he died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799, the nation went into mourning and the canonization of "the illustrious Washington" was in the making. He became forever the lonely and immutable monument of American glory. As one eulogist said: "He created his own silence whilst the others were obliged to await the hand of time." During the period of national mourning for Washington—between December 14, 1799, and February 22, 1800—some 350 funeral eulogies were delivered from Maine to Georgia in which the "sainted Washington" was frequently compared to Plutarchian heroes. Typical were the remarks of the rock-ribbed arch-Federalist Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, one of the greatest orators of the day: "Some future Plutarch will search for a parallel to his character. Epaminondas is perhaps the highest name of all antiquity. Our Washington resembled him in the purity and ardor of his patriotism; and like him, he first exalted the glory of his country." In the breathless oratory of countless eulogies he became the "godlike Washington."

    Even in his lifetime, Washington's contemporaries vied to pay him tribute: he was seen as a symbol of national unity, and he was made into a graven image for the nation to worship. "O Washington!" declared Ezra Stiles of Yale in a sermon of 1783,

How I do love thy name! How have I often adored and blessed thy God, for creating and forming thee the great ornament of human kind! ... our very enemies stop the madness of their fire in full volley, stop the illiberality of their slander at thy name, as if rebuked from Heaven with a—"Touch not mine Anointed, and do my Hero no harm!" Thy fame is of sweeter perfume than Arabian spices. Listening angels shall catch the odor, waft it to heaven, and per fume the universe!

Washington's great height, noble carriage, solemn visage, impenetrable dignity, steely reserve, and instinct for command fixed in the public mind his reputation as father of his country. His charismatic presence impressed everyone. Jefferson said of him: "His person was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback." "He has not the imposing pomp of a Maréchal de France who gives the order," observed the Marquis de Chastellux, who served in the American Revolution as a major general in Rochambeau's army. "A hero in a republic, he excites another sort of respect which seems to spring from the sole idea that the safety of each individual is attached to his person ... The goodness and benevolence which characterize him are evident in all that surrounds him, but the confidence that he calls forth never occasions improper familiarity." At a state dinner in France in 1784, the British ambassador grandly announced in his toast, "England—the sun—whose bright beams enlighten and fructify the remotest corners of the earth," to which Benjamin Franklin made his own toast in response: "George Washington, Commander of the American armies, who, like Joshua of old, commanded the sun and the moon to stand still, and they obeyed him." And Franklin, later bequeathing to him his gold-headed crab-tree walking stick, remarked: "If it were a scepter, he has merited it and would become it."

    What gives the real Washington his special distinction, what in fact accounts for his towering greatness and peculiar appeal, is not so much intellectual achievement or book learning as character—an unflinching belief in principles and a stern devotion to virtue. In the course of a busy life, he had little time or inclination to read; he was a poor public speaker, slow in expression and halting in thought, and an awkward conversationalist, possessing, according to one contemporary, "neither copiousness of ideas nor fluency of words." But Washington had the good manners, dignified behavior, and supreme self-confidence of the well-bred, class-conscious, aristocratic gentry of Virginia. Those classical Roman virtues of gravitas, pietas, simplicitas, integritas, and gloria fortified his sense of leadership, no matter how self-sacrificing, and sustained his feeling of responsibility, no matter how onerous. While Fisher Ames likened him to Epaminondas, the Theban patriot whose nobility of character Plutarch eulogized, Washington himself seemed to prefer the role of Cincinnatus, the virtuous Roman and sensible husbandman. "Agriculture has ever been the most favorite amusement of my life," he wrote after his revolutionary campaigns were finished. Sowing and reaping, planting and grafting, and riding along his fields of green tobacco and rippling grain were his chief delights. The fundamental element in Washington's character, according to Jefferson, was prudence, followed closely by integrity, honesty, and a stern sense of justice. The emphasis was on heroic virtues—self restraint not self-expression, dignity not forcefulness, moderation not ambition, responsibility to one's accepted duty not making one's mark on the world in novel ways. The occasional references to physical features simply point to the qualities of mind and spirit. Writers noted a countenance "strongly marked with the lines of thinking," or an eye that not only "kindled with intelligence" but also "spoke the language of an ardent and noble mind." Character was also emphasized in 1843 by Daniel Webster in his oration delivered at the Bunker Hill Monument. America, he said, had repaid its considerable debt to the Old World by furnishing "to the world the character of Washington, and if our American institutions had done nothing else, that alone would have entitled them to the respect of mankind." His broad wisdom reconciled clashing interests and opposing factions, and gave the new nation the fundamental shape it would retain. An American writer once credibly observed that "England's greatest contribution to the world is the works of Shakespeare; America's greatest contribution is the character of George Washington."

    Washington set his own terms for executive leadership, and a stiff public protocol suited his dignity. He fused the character of his office to the special qualities of his personality, and he lived the role of the hero-president with the profound awareness of a gentleman who was watching his every action as closely as he assumed others were. His stolidity provided a model of strength for the new government; just as he protected his own aloofness inside a sturdy case of formalities, so he expected the national executive to stand apart from the nation as a beacon of public order. Never a man from whom words flowed in easy abundance, always a man of genuine modesty about his own intellectual capacities, Washington nevertheless turned out in a correct and easy style an incredible amount of writing. Whether recording routine weather and farm data, or maintaining an extensive correspondence, he was a talented phrasemaker—"I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable," "We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die," "Guard against the postures of pretended patriotism," "We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it," "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace," "Discipline ... makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all"—and he was capable of felicitous eloquence in his state papers. When Washington delivered his First Inaugural Address in Federal Hall in New York City in 1789, it was a touching little sermon on personal duty and national glory. As Lincoln's quiet remarks at Gettysburg were the most refined expression of the old and unspoiled idea of the American mission, so Washington's quiet remarks in New York were the most challenging. It made the mission a living presence in American politics; it gave dignity and legitimacy to even the most savage contests for power in the next three generations. Of all the words of inspiration that Washington spoke during his career as a public man, none were more influential, because none were more expressive of the American character, than this awesome reminder that into our hands had been committed the decisive trial of strength with the age-old enemies of free government—ignorance, cruelty, pride, poverty, disorder, irrational behavior. If it had said nothing else, the First Inaugural Address would be a document to cherish because it asks us, as it asked the men of 1789, to remember that "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." The feelings of those who had gathered to listen to these words were accurately expressed by Fisher Ames, the most eloquent member of the first Congress, who confessed frankly that he had "sat entranced" in the face of this "allegory in which virtue was personified."

    Throughout the war, General Washington had communicated with state governors, who provided funds and personnel for the war effort, by way of official letters called "circulars." The circular of June 1783 was meant to be his final such communication, with the immediate purpose of announcing his own military retirement and laying out his case for establishing a national character at the core of American nationhood. At the time, Washington considered the Circular Address, as it is now called, to be his "legacy" to the new nation. Once peace had been won, it was in the power of the American people to decide their own future, to determine whether the Revolution would be "a blessing or a curse," not only for present and future generations of Americans but also for the rest of the world. "This is the time of their political probation," Washington wrote, echoing John Winthrop's famous "Citty upon a Hill" sermon of 1630, for "this is the moment when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon them." Washington thought the decisions being made in 1783 were as important as those of 1776. In describing the times and circumstances, he saw America's founding moment as unique, of universal significance, and in line with the deeper philosophical and theological roots of the Revolution and America's place in the course of history and civilization. "The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition," he wrote in one of his more striking statements,

but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures ... are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government ... At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.

To Washington, the founding of America was more than the culmination of a sequence of events normally associated with the period. It was an "auspicious" moment that would prove the viability of Republican government and determine the political future of humankind. The crucial act in the formation of the new American nation was the establishment of the habits of good government and citizenship, which would stamp the country with an indelible character and render its people capable of ruling themselves. And the national character—as in any nation where the institutions of government are based on the consent of the governed—ultimately turned on the disposition of the American people to transcend their local prejudices and to overcome their self-interest in favor of the common good: to practice the habits and virtues of self-government. If they failed under these opportune circumstances, "the fault will be intirely their own."

    When President Washington decided to retire at the end of his second term, he prepared a valediction, the Farewell Address, his great state paper, which took the shape of a political testament. It embodied his momentous decision not to stand for a third term, a decision that was long accepted as an unwritten law of the Constitution. On September 19, 1796, he presented it to the people in the columns of the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser; it was never delivered orally. Written in the style of eighteenth-century European statesmen, Washington's political testament was a message of advice to his countrymen. He reminded them of the importance of union; he warned against allowing factional disputes to divide that union; he encouraged the preservation and protection of the nation's credit; and, in what was to become a keystone of public policy up to the twentieth century, he cautioned them against making permanent foreign alliances that could "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour, or Caprice." Not all passages of Washington's address were equally durable. His injunction against political factionalism did not prevent the rise of a two-party system, nor did his prophetic warning of the dangers of sectionalism deter civil war between North and South. What did survive was his "Great Rule," his guidelines for American foreign policy: "'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign world. So far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it." This did not in fact represent a change in policy; rather, it gave literary articulation to the big decisions that had already been made by Washington's administration to avoid entanglement in the European war that broke out in the wake of the French Revolution. Washington's Great Rule later took concrete form in the Monroe Doctrine, which expressed the notion of two separate spheres of political action. The United States would abstain from involvement in European politics; Europe was to abstain from interfering in the political affairs of the independent states of the New World. Above all else, his intent with the Farewell Address was to issue a statement of principles with which most of his countrymen could and did agree—in particular, his plea for a posture of neutrality in foreign affairs through which peace might be attained and preserved.

    People in the late twentieth century are so accustomed to thinking of George Washington as the man of history that his dossier as frontier soldier, military leader of the Revolution, and first president of the United States tends to obscure what was, for him, a more deeply satisfying experience: being squire of Mount Vernon. All told, public service kept him away from the place he loved best for over two decades; but even so, twenty-three years of his mature life were spent in residence at Mount Vernon, Virginia. While it was not without its frustrations, the plantation was the source of his greatest enjoyment and provided a release from the awesome burdens he assumed on behalf of his country. The "American Cincinnatus," as he was called, was only fifty-one when he wrote his friend the Marquis de Lafayette that his sole desire was to be a private citizen, to sit under his "own vine and fig-tree" and "move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers." No matter where he was or what his preoccupation, Washington's land and home remained in his mind's eye, and throughout the war and his presidency, he wrote long, detailed letters to his successive estate managers—letters filled with instructions concerning additions to the house, or the planting of crops and trees, or about slaves, craftsmen, and livestock. During his long years of absence, Mount Vernon was never out of Washington's thoughts for long.

    Architecture was his favorite art, and in designing Mount Vernon, Washington's only guide was his own eye. Few historic houses in America so directly reflect the mind and character of their builders and occupants. Mount Vernon was a huge estate that stretched some ten miles along the Potomac River and penetrated inland about four miles at its widest point. In 1759 Andrew Burnaby, a vicar of Greenwich, England, paid a visit to Mount Vernon and recorded his impression of the spectacular view from the front of the Mansion. "The house is most beautifully situated upon a high hill on the banks of the Potomac," he wrote, "and commands a noble prospect of water, of cliffs, of woods, and plantations. The river is nearly two miles broad, though two hundred [miles] from the mouth, and divides the dominions of Virginia from Maryland." Just as Washington—the living symbol of the revolutionary cause—was much more than a country squire, Mount Vernon was vastly more than a Virginia country gentleman's residence. At a time when there was no permanent national capital and no presidential residence, Mount Vernon was one of the most prominent buildings in America. It was also the scene of impressive entertaining for renowned visitors and could be "compared to a well-resorted tavern," Washington wrote, "as scarcely any strangers who are going from north to south or from south to north do not spend a day or two at it." To intimates whom he invited for long visits, he warned: "My manner of living is plain. I do not mean to be put out of it. A glass of wine and bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of them are welcome. Those who expect more will be disappointed, but no change will be affected by it." The American Cincinnatus embraced the Horatian ideal of the good life: cultivation of the soil and tranquil repose by the hearth.

    The apotheosis of Washington was a Greco-Roman legacy and illustrated the diversity and uniqueness of American perceptions of antiquity. In his famous fourteenth Federalist Paper, James Madison advocated an enlightened adaptation of the classical past, not a "blind veneration for antiquity." Having mastered history, these Americans believed they were no longer mastered by it. For symbolic as well as for ideological reasons, the classical tradition and the veneration of national heroes lasted longer in nineteenth-century America than anywhere else in the world. By 1831, when Samuel F. Smith wrote the patriotic hymn "America," he could refer to the "templed hills" that were already characteristic of the American landscape. On January 1, 1801, David Ramsey, the historian of the American Revolution, speaking before a glittering audience in Charleston, South Carolina, offered a telling invocation for the age that would follow: "Let those who follow us in the twentieth [century] have as much reason to respect our memories, as we have to venerate those who have gone before us." In the final analysis, the founding fathers cannot be finished off in a eulogy or enclosed in a pantheon. The success of the fragile American experiment depends on our recognition of their faith and our responsible commitment to their ideals.

    George Washington was beyond question one of the greatest men in history, one of the noblest men who ever lived. He was the towering figure in the establishment of the United States, and he did more than any other man to create and preserve the Republic. "Washington was more than a military leader: he was the eagle, the standard, the flag, the living symbol of the cause," wrote James Thomas Flexner. Able and energetic, he had many virtues. He was also impulsive, vulnerable, and fallible. Gouverneur Morris, an intimate friend, wrote of Washington that few men "had to contend with passions so violent." His path through life was studded with mistakes, indiscretions, resentments, and the exaggerated complaints common to humankind; but he also manifested lofty patriotism, dedication, idealism, modesty, self-mastery, and unselfish service to the state. It is questionable whether or not another individual in all of American history has ever been so venerated by his compatriots as the "godlike Washington." Artists, contemporaries, and later mythmakers froze him in the classic image of the selfless patriot-statesman—tight-lipped and determined, proper if not priggish. His great height, dignity, and faith in himself and his country fixed in the public consciousness a notion of Washington as a man devoid of deep affections and passions, aloof, austere, and impenetrably reserved. It is not Washington the victor at Yorktown who stirs the deepest appeal, but the legendary Washington on his knees in the snow at Valley Forge. He was great because he was good.

    Washington had been notable in his native Virginia since the 1750s, and then throughout America after he took command of the colonies' armed forces in June 1775. From then on, indeed, Washington was famous around the world. Americans may disagree with one another about many things, and they may disagree even more with foreigners. However, belief in the greatness of General Washington (or President Washington) was one thing they can nearly always agree upon. In the nineteenth century, anniversaries of his birth or inauguration as president in 1789 witnessed increasingly prominent public rituals. Thus, at the semicentennial of his presidential inauguration in 1839, the tributes included a two-hour speech by former president John Quincy Adams and the reading of a special ode composed by the well-known poet William Cullen Bryant. At the 1889 centennial gala in New York City, President Benjamin Harrison actually stood in for Washington; Harrison reenacted the taking of the oath of office for a jostling crowd of a million in the streets near Broadway and Wall Street, where the original ceremony had taken place at Federal Hall in the presence of a mere few thousand people. The 1932 bicentennial of Washington's birth, masterminded by the tireless congressman Sol Bloom, was a patriotic extravaganza that went on for months. One of Bloom's schemes was to supply every classroom in the land with a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum portrait of Washington.

    Hero worship was an obvious feature of these occasions. Odes and orations represented Washington as a person of near perfect virtue and attainment. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who acquired a copy of the Stuart portrait in 1849, wrote in his diary in 1852:

The head of Washington hangs in my dining-room ... and I cannot keep my eyes off it. It has a certain Appalachian strength, as if it were truly the first-fruits of America and expressed the Country. The heavy, leaden eyes turn on you, as the eyes of an ox in a pasture. And the mouth has gravity and depth of quiet, as if this man had absorbed all the serenity of America, and left none for his restless, rickety, hysterical countrymen.

A few years later, in conversation with the sculptor Hiram Powers, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne discussed the problem of depicting George Washington three-dimensionally. Another sculptor, Horatio Greenough, in a colossal statue unveiled in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in 1841, presented Washington like Phidias's Zeus, seated on a throne and naked to the waist. Powers, like Greenough, appreciated the "ideality" that could be evoked by means of unclad classical forms. But Hawthorne, displaying the ordinary layman's taste of his day, thought Powers crazy even to contemplate a nude version of the "Pater Patriae." "Did anybody ever see Washington naked! It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine, was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."

    Hawthorne and Powers did agree, though, in attributing to their hero the kind of awesome personality Emerson had sensed from staring at the Stuart portrait. Powers, who at the time was executing portrait busts at his studio in Florence, Italy, remarked that all European royalty "have a certain look that distinguishes them from other people, and is seen in individuals of no lower rank." But he added that Washington was the only American to possess this look. The idea also interested Hawthorne. Such people, he mused,

put themselves under glass, as it were ... so that ... they keep themselves within a sort of Sanctity, and repel you by an invisible barrier. Even if they invite you, with a show of warmth and hospitality, you cannot get through. I, too, recognize this look in the portraits of Washington; in him, a mild, benevolent coldness and apartness [indicates a] formality which seems to have been deeper in him than in any other mortal, and which built up an actual fortification between himself and human sympathy.

Hawthorne wished that "for once, Washington could come out of his envelopment, and show us what his real dimensions were."

    Where in all of this is the "real" man? Emerson, Hawthorne, Powers: each in one way or another spoke for the creative imagination; each held definite opinions on how the character of Washington ought to be interpreted. None had ever met or seen the general, yet each chose to interpret him so as to uphold some theory of human behavior. It does not follow that their collective notion of Washington told the whole truth or revealed much more than a mid-nineteenth-century conception of the nation's patriot leader. Artists and writers more or less adopted the notion of Washington as an eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman. Yet neither they nor their Victorian contemporaries were absolutely sure this was an appropriate model for the leadership of a bustling democratic nation. Odd hesitancies are apparent in their commentaries. Some Northerners worried, since Washington had been a slaveholding southern aristocrat and was connected through his wife, Martha, and the Custis family to Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate "rebels." "Shall we," asked the New England abolitionist-clergyman Theodore Parker, "build him a great monument, founding it in a slave pen?" It was true that his will stipulated that his slaves should be freed upon his death, but did this make him "democratic" on the level of an Abraham Lincoln? Did his countrymen truly know how to treat Washington? His home at Mount Vernon was in sad decay on the eve of the Civil War; it was rescued only by valiant private efforts, especially those of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Work on his monument ceased during the 1850s, when it was still a stump less than a third of its projected height. Construction was not resumed until long after the Civil War was over, and the monument in Washington, D.C., was not completed until 1885.

    On the other hand we must reckon with the recurrent commemorative ceremonials and the vast volumes of adulatory recognition. Washington was an exceptional man: with reason, he became so merged with the ideal image of America that his is the most prominent name in the land. Here was a man whose strength resided in his austere sobriety, who in his own person demonstrated the soundness of the new nation. He was a good man, not a demigod; he was an honest administrator, not a brilliant statesman; he was a military man, but never a militarist. He was touchingly proud of America, proud that it was his country and that it had been given the historic chance of becoming a model of religious as well as political freedom. In a letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, whose service he had attended, he stressed that in America freedom of religious worship was one of the "inherent natural rights," where the government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

    The most famous summary of Washington's career was spoken by Henry ("Light-Horse Harry") Lee in a memorial address delivered two days after Washington died: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life ... the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues." "Our Washington is no more," mourned John Marshall on December 19, 1799. "The Hero, the Sage, and the Patriot of America—the man on whom in times of danger every eye was turned, and all hopes were placed—lives now only in his own great actions, and in the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people."

Meet the Author

Wendell Garrett is senior vice president of American decorative art at Sotheby's New York and editor at large of The Magazine Antiques. Author of American Colonial and other notable books, he is a social historian with a special interest in the colonial period.

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