What do you know about George Washington?
I cannot tell a lie, I cut down the cherry tree. (Myth)
He had bad teeth and used wooden ones. (Partially true)
He wore a white wig. (Nope—that was his hair.)
He stood in the prow of the boat crossing the Delaware River. (A great painting.)
He was a Mason and lived by their tenets. (True)
These are some of the childhood things I grew up knowing about our first president. Those things lingered there, with not much more thought about George taking place throughout my life.
Until, okay, I’m going to admit it … until watching the highly entertaining TV show, Sleepy Hollow. There it is—it’s out there now. I love this fanciful series. The whole idea of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross—being these highly imaginative, supernatural spies appeals to me on multiple levels.
I already know a great deal about Ben from having taught a workshop with him as a cornerstone. Betsy remains elusive, but George? George was easy. We tackled tours of both Mount Vernon and The George Washington Masonic National Memorial during our last jaunt to Washington, DC.
And it was about time, I’d say.
George was as amazing as I’d found Ben to be—intelligent, inventive, and an innovator.
He was an enterprising farmer—he owned more than 3,000 acres— and was interested in trying new methods, fully documenting his efforts. He developed a 16-sided treading barn and the replica shows his advanced method (horse-driven) of handling the wheat harvest for maximum efficiency.
George was asked more than once to step into the public arena. After the war, he wanted to be a farmer and husband and father and grandfather. He repeatedly left office only to be pressed upon to return again and again. Washington didn’t want to be president and yet wound up doing two terms.
The house looks like stone, but is actually cleverly disguised wood.
Touring the house:
The docents—you are handed off to a new one with each room you enter—spoke of the slaves as “enslaved” people. No matter what it’s called, the mere thought of one person owning another is enough to sicken the soul of any conscientious person. That said, the practice at the time was for the gentry to own slaves. You can read multiple views on Washington’s ownership of slaves—he was harsh, he was kind, he struggled with the idea of slavery—read and decide for yourself how to interpret it. What is clear in his will is that he freed the 123 slaves he owned.
The docent didn’t explain what happened to the balance of the slaves, but the site does. The remaining 153 people were part of the “dower property” that Martha brought with her from her first marriage (to Daniel Park Custis). Law did not permit either George or Martha to release these people from bondage—upon Martha’s death, they reverted to the heirs from the Custis lineage.
I urge you to go to the website and read the wealth of information available about slavery at Mount Vernon. On the grounds, there is a tribute to the slaves, please be respectful and silent when walking at the memorial and cemetery.
The original George W. had no formal education, a condition he found troublesome and corrected by a lifelong love of learning. He had an extensive library and treasured his books.
To go along with his reading, Washington also had a distillery and made rye and corn whiskey, which he expanded into the largest whiskey making enterprise in America.
You could spend an entire day at Mount Vernon watching the videos, walking the grounds, dining at the excellent restaurant. It is a factual site, where they don’t shine over Washington’s flaws, such as slave ownership, but convey the facts and urge you to think it through for yourself.
At The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, we learned about George and the Masons.
There are parts of the memorial that you wander through on your own, but the tour is the only way to see the full building or take the elevator to the observation deck. Absolutely do it.
The Memorial sits atop a hill in Alexandria. It is a grand building comprised of three sections of tower—the bottom is Doric, the middle Ionic, the top Corinthian, with a pyramid above that.
One of the coolest aspects of the building is the way the elevators are constructed. On the opposite side of this room from where George (17 feet of bronze) stands in this picture are elevators on either side. You can easily see the breadth of the room.
Another educational exhibit is the Form & Function of American Freemasonry. This was good reading on the history of Freemasons in America and the part the organization has played/does play in our country.
Another floor is the George Washington Museum with various artifacts from Mount Vernon including the 1792 family bible.
The eighth level has four amazing stained glass windows and is known as the Knight Templar Chapel. I couldn’t help but think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
What we learned about our first president during these two tours was that he was, to use today’s terms, a stand-up guy. He cared deeply about doing what was right and strove to live up to the standards he set for himself.
Yes, he struggled with the issue of slave ownership and how to extricate himself from it. But he was a good man trying to do his best.
When you go:
Check the website ahead of time and pick your tour from the many available. Remember: it would be quite easy to spend an entire day here, so plan for what you want to see and do. There is no photography permitted inside the house proper.
There is a nice restaurant onsite, but it gets busy so you may want to make reservations.
The George Washington Masonic National Memorial:
The tours are one hour long and begin at 9:30, with at least half-hour breaks between. Allow at least two hours exploring the exhibits.