I went to Washington, D.C. recently for an academic conference – one of those conclaves where you present your brilliant scholarly insights to a room of 15 other Deep Thinkers.
The wife went along (disclaimer: scrupulous expense accounting maintained) and we took the occasion to cross into gorgeous northern Virginia and visit the home of George Washington, Mount Vernon.
I’ve been to a few other storied historical sites and thought to myself, I hope no one planned their vacation around this. The Liberty Bell … underwhelming. The Washington Monument itself, on the Mall in D.C. … sure is tall. But Mount Vernon does not disappoint.
I wish I had been ambitious enough to shoot this video, but it probably wouldn’t look as good:
If it is true, as I believe, that your home is a reflection of who you really are (I’m going to paint this summer, really, dear), then Mount Vernon speaks extremely well of Washington. Not just the graceful home itself, sitting majestically on a bluff with a stunning view of the Potomac River below, but the careful planning that went into laying out the various gardens, pastures and outbuildings on the vast estate. And yet, entirely unpretentious, practical, down-to-earth. You sense that you would have felt at ease in Washington’s presence, despite his severe expression on the dollar bill (those infamous dentures – on display in the visitor center, by way – were giving him fits).
Yes, there are slave quarters at Mount Vernon. Give credit to the people who run the place; they feature them prominently and make no excuses for Washington. My thought: I hope I am not judged 200 years from now by the enlightened standards of that age (in the unlikely event that I’m remembered at all).
Visiting Washington’s home reminded me of something I read years ago, “George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.”
Those are not Washington’s original thoughts. The young Washington copied them for a school assignment, but he surely absorbed them and they certainly informed his behavior: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present” … Another thought: Is the education our kids receive today as good as Washington’s in the 18th century?
Some historical figures are so renowned that it becomes fashionable to downplay their greatness. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Babe Ruth? No, Aaron, or Mays, or Cobb. The Beatles? No, the Stones, or Dylan, or Led Zeppelin. In the barroom debate over the greatest president, you can still put me down for Washington.