Mount Vernon: where Washington's vision grew

The following is an excerpt, condensed from 'George Washington's Mount Vernon,' by Robert F. Dalzell Jr. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell (Oxford University Press, 1998).

THOUGHTS about George Washington inevitably conjure in the mind's eye a series of iconic pictures -commanding troops in battle, crossing the Delaware in winter, presiding over the Constitutional Convention, taking the oath of office as president. The images flash by in grand and familiar sequence, and there he is at the center of them, steadfast calm and aloof. Which is exactly how he meant to appear to the world at large.

Yet in reality, Washington was a person of intense emotions, and nothing engaged his emotions more deeply than Mount Vernon - the piece of earth he loved better than any other, the home he claimed to value above all the honors the world could bestow, the palpable result of a lifetime of effort and concern, but also something he was prepared to see destroyed if honor demanded it.

Feelings so powerful underline what was obvious to anyone who knew Washington: Mount Vernon was far more than simply a house. It was an extension of the man himself, a tangible emblem of his character, his personality, his hopes, his dreams. For more than four decades he served as its architect and chief planner - a role he shared with no one, not even Martha Washington.

Fully as interesting as what Mount Vernon can tell us about Washington's feelings is what it reveals of his mind. Inclined always to keep his innermost thoughts to himself, he rarely had much to say about the issues that animated the great events of his life. His diaries are largely confined to accounts of the weather and list the people who came to dinner. In Mount Vernon itself, however, he produced a text from which it is possible to coax a remarkably full sense of his political convictions and of how, over time, they changed.

Along with Lexington and Concord, Boston and Philadelphia, Valley Forge and Yorktown, Mount Vernon was one of the sites where American independence was forged.

Ultimately, what he wanted from Mount Vernon was an affirmation of his sense of himself as a free man. But freedom had more than one meaning during those years, and Washington also experienced Mount Vernon as more than just the result of the plans he had made for it.

There were too many elements involved in building to keep it moving smoothly on track for so long. And above all, there were the people who did the work.

The basic patterns of life in Virginia -particularly the combination of staple- crop agriculture and African slavery, and the growing inequality it fostered within the white population -were already well established when Washington reached maturity. The terms of labor he set for his workers reflected those patterns. But his terms were not the only ones defining the relationship; the workers played an equally important role in the process. Also, his attitude toward Virginia's economy changed markedly over the years, a fact most prominently illustrated by his growing antipathy to slavery.

In part, the change registered a broader shift in values growing out of the Revolution. At least as important, however, was Washington's day-to-day experience building and running Mount Vernon.

By nature he was a difficult and demanding taskmaster, and dozens of individuals at Mount Vernon felt the sting of his anger. Yet the anger Washington felt was matched on his workers' side by a resolute determination to use their labor for their ends as well as his. They would build his house and shape and tend his land, but they also had lives and dreams of their own to fulfill.

Eventually Washington grew to understand this, and the knowledge had a subtle but profound effect on his thoughts about many subjects, including Mount Vernon. In time it came to embody, in succession, two quite distinct visions.

The first was of an ordered society managed by an elite of virtuous, independent gentlemen; the second was of a nation characterized by equality of opportunity and independence for all.

The first vision was fundamentally republican; the second, essentially democratic.

Most scholars, however sympathetic to Washington, have tended to depict him as permanently frozen in the classical republican mold. Yet to see him thus is to miss much of the meaning of the later part of his life, particularly as he lived it at home, at Mount Vernon.

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