For the 23rd time today, George Washington is dying. Except for his muffled, pained breathing, the pale old man lies quiet in a cramped second-floor bedroom of Mount Vernon. The doctors have tried everything. They’ve drained his veins in repeated bloodlettings that have only made him weaker. They’ve put poultices of wheat bran on his legs and feet. Still, that horrible wheezing persists. The youngest
physician suggests a tracheotomy, but the others shake their heads no—such a newfangled procedure is too risky.
Suffering from an infected, swollen throat, Washington is slowly suffocating to death. And nobody knows it better than he does.
He has lingered for nearly a day like this, accepting his fate without complaint. Then, suddenly, as if in a Poe story, comes the fear of being buried alive, a replay of the torture that he now endures. He whispers hoarsely to his personal secretary, Tobias Lear. “Have me decently buried, and let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.” Lear is so emotional that at first he can’t manage a reply. Finally, he sputters, “Yes, sir.”
A hologramlike image of Lear narrates this harrowing death scene in a 10-minute special-effects presentation: Washington Is No More screens continuously in the converted greenhouse at Mount Vernon, the historic estate of George Washington. Lear’s pliable 3-D visage and funereal bearing suggest Freddy Kruger doing Masterpiece Theatre. With this relentlessly grim multimedia creepfest, the death-mongering at Mount Vernon has only just begun.
On the gravel driveway in front of the mansion, costumed interpreters keep the show rolling. The first to greet visitors today is a gentleman in a frock coat, breeches, and buckled shoes. He introduces himself as Gilbert Stuart, the painter responsible for the best-known image of Washington, the portrait that appears on the dollar bill. A similarly dressed man in a tricorn hat says he’s a merchant summoned to Mount Vernon to discuss some money matters with Washington, a notorious tightwad.
The period role-playing is the sort of Colonial Williamsburg-style shenanigans that would have gotten its practitioners shot on sight here years ago, back when the estate was a mute shrine, back when Mount Vernon’s slaves were referred to as “servants,” back when Washington’s personal life remained a taboo subject. Now, these often messy details are doled out as generously as the molasses-vinegar-and-butter concoction that Washington kept choking up on his deathbed.
The slave-life tour has become one of the place’s most popular attractions. In an archaeological exhibit, you can examine a raccoon penis bone that a Mount Vernon slave probably wore as a mojo charm. A pair of Washington’s psychedelic sunglasses—featuring funky tortoiseshell frames and hinged lenses of green glass—is wowing the teens at the estate’s museum. And you can get a look at the ceremonial apron with painted, cryptic decorations that Washington wore when he and his fellow Masons were doing God knows what at their secret meetings.
Mount Vernon officials have also sent an updated George on the road, giving America the chance to see rare relics of the great leader up close and personal. Not just tattered old papers, fancy dinnerware, and pewter mugs, mind you, but pieces of the man himself: A traveling exhibition, “Treasures From Mount Vernon,” stars Washington’s cow-bone-and-elephant-ivory dentures (the apocryphal “wooden teeth”), long considered too private for display at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon’s death fixation comes to life as a re-enactment of Washington’s funeral procession snakes across the estate several times a day. Led by an interpreter dressed in black, the entourage first winds down the hill to the old tomb, a brick enclosure dug into an embankment, where Washington’s remains were kept until 1831. Then it concludes at the family mausoleum, a massive, gated tomb where his body rests in a marble crypt next to his wife Martha’s. Volunteers read stirring eulogies from the likes of Napoleon and the king of England. A child lays a wreath at the crypt, and the ceremony ends with a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
It’s hard to imagine this sort of hero worship at any other historical site in the U.S. But Mount Vernon—privately owned and operated, and open every day of the year for more than 140 years—is like no other historical site. This year is the bicentennial of Washington’s death, and the place has been restored to resemble the way it was in 1799 as much as possible. Historical accuracy remains a priority, but so does the bottom line—bringing paying visitors through the front gate. To that end, there is a “Pioneer Farm,” where costumed laborers till the fields and cook up hoecakes over an open fire. Kids can pet the farm animals. Each Friday and Saturday evening in summer, “Celebration Night” features live bands playing patriotic music. Offering a steady dose of entertainment for the whole family, this everyday extravaganza reveals a new, tourist-friendly Mount Vernon, part of the overall effort to drag the Father of His Country back into our midst.
“You could spend all day here now, and this is what we love,” says Mrs. Robert E. Lee IV, regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which runs the estate. “The people can come down and really learn about George Washington, not just see the beautiful estate but really get a feel for who this man was and what he stood for. He really was the glue that kept everybody together. He wanted so badly to be an example for all good American citizens to follow.”
Washington’s tenacious stewards will do anything to help Washington’s legacy make it into the next millennium. A member of the Ladies’ Association for more than a quarter century, Lee (her husband is the great grandson of the Confederate general) admits that the estate’s makeover has rankled some purists, who disapprove not only of the display of the dentures but also of the climate-control system recently installed in the mansion. “I think everyone’s so worried that [we’re going] to lose our traditions,” she says.
According to Lee, Mount Vernon can be preserved without being embalmed. To do the same for Washington himself is a far tougher goal: Icon of American icons, he’s been stuffed so full of myths and countermyths that even historians get in a pickle trying to define him.
Washington is the Elvis of presidents, the sui generis idol and standard-bearer. Over the centuries, he has been a sort of blank slate on which Americans have imposed their collective desires. In his own time, he was already a living legend for his military feats, and he was even more honored after he willingly turned over his sword to Congress and resigned as head of the Continental Army. In the political turmoil of the early republic, he remained a uniting force, and after his death he became a national deity.
But his hold on the American consciousness faded as the 20th century progressed. More contemporary presidential lions like FDR and JFK made Washington seem dusty and irrelevant. By the ’60s, his star had faded. Now his public image has become the equivalent of the Fat Elvis: the fallen, flawed hero, the ultimate Dead President.
Likewise, Mount Vernon is American history’s very own Graceland. Like Graceland, it is the dream house of an uneducated country boy who made good. Like Graceland, it has been disparaged by snobs. Queen Elizabeth, visiting Mount Vernon, called it a “charming cottage.” Like Graceland, it has become synonymous with its maker, and it serves as an international shrine for pilgrims.
And yet neither Elvis nor Graceland is in need of a PR campaign.
The recent transformation of Mount Vernon is the culmination of a sustained effort to rehabilitate Washington’s image and reconcile all the myriad George Washingtons. The soldier and the statesman. The farmer and the patriot. The husband and the slaveholder. The fox hunter and the conservationist. The hero and the man.
Lee admits that this effort is nothing less than a rescue mission. The schoolchildren who still visit Mount Vernon in droves scarcely know who Washington is. According to Lee, even the cherry tree story draws a blank these days. And the adults, she says, aren’t much more enlightened. Which leaves Mount Vernon and its Ladies’ Association to restore the lost hero to the national memory: “If we don’t keep George Washington in our thoughts and minds, I don’t know who else is going to do it.”
When the birthday of Washington shall be forgotten, liberty will have perished from the earth.
—President James Buchanan, 1860
On a breezy April morning, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) lords over the lawn at Mount Vernon for a press conference. His back to the mansion’s grand porch, he looks out over the shimmering, silvery Potomac River toward the wooded Maryland shore. It is a glorious view not much different from the one an observer would have enjoyed two centuries before—thanks to the Ladies’ Association, which decades ago helped stop a huge development project on the Maryland side of the river that would have ruined the vista.
Even the self-consciously modest Washington couldn’t help crowing about the prime location. It’s the nearest thing to a brag by him on record. “No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this,” he wrote to a friend. “It lies in a high, dry, and healthy country, 300 miles by water and from the sea, and on one of the finest rivers in the world.”
It’s hard to quibble. The riverside bluff is a charmed spot, a place where you get the feeling you could toss a rotten apple into the sky and it would come down apple pie.
Despite the setting, the press conference hasn’t attracted much of a media presence. Behind the makeshift podium, it’s business as usual at Mount Vernon. Sightseers surge through the mansion, although Bartlett manages to draw a throng of curious spectators who’ve been lounging on the porch’s Windsor chairs.
Bartlett makes his own claim to the great hero: His home county in western Maryland was the first to name itself after the general, a bold thing to do in 1776 when the Revolutionary War was barely under way and the Continental Army didn’t appear to stand a chance. It was also the first locality to memorialize Washington with a monument, still standing on a hill overlooking the town of Boonsboro.
Bartlett has come to this place on this day to address a crisis of sorts. In recent years, he says, something terrible has happened to Washington’s Birthday. This once-sacred holiday has gradually been gobbled up and regurgitated as an abomination known throughout the land as Presidents’ Day. “It’s just another day when our kids don’t go to school. It’s just another excuse for a bake sale,” he says. “I can remember back when I was in school, when it was Washington’s Birthday, we would re-connect with those principles, those values, that were so important at the beginning of our country, and very important today. We would talk about George Washington and his courage, his commitment, his dedication. We would talk about the young boy and how he told his father, ‘Father, I cannot tell a lie.’”
All of that has changed, says Bartlett. Beyond this beautiful estate lurks a different world, a place with little patience for a goody-two-shoes. It’s not just the holiday that’s under fire. It’s Washington himself and all the ideals he represents, the politician seems to be saying.
Bartlett holds two books aloft, a couple of textbooks on Virginia history, one published in 1956 and one from the ’90s. “If you count the references to George Washington in these textbooks, there are 10 times as many references to George Washington in this older one as there are in the newer one,” he says. “Our educators are systematically writing out of our textbooks the early history of our country.”
So Bartlett and his co-sponsors—representatives from each of the original 13 colonies—are doing the only thing they can. Which, as it turns out, isn’t much. The bill would restore official recognition of the federal holiday that falls on the third Monday in February as Washington’s Birthday. Bartlett says it will speak volumes: a symbolic act to help rescue the greatest American symbol. Let the car dealers and banks and the local governments call it whatever they want to, but this is George Washington’s birthday, and it’s not supposed to be about anyone but him.
“I think it’s an absolute shame,” a history major in attendance tells Bartlett after the speech. He’s a member of a church group from Kentucky, and he wants to show his solidarity.
“Yeah, they don’t like our early history,” shrugs Bartlett. “We had slaves, and we killed the Indians, so they’re writing all that history out of there. Whether it was good or whether it was bad—some of these things they did I’m not proud of—but it was history.”
The disappearance of Washington’s Birthday is just a symptom of how far the first president has fallen from his once lofty status.
During the last several decades, the reputations of the so-called great presidents have taken a beating, and Washington has been hit the hardest. “From about 1960 to the present, there has been a very, very steep decline in the public reputations of the great presidents—Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman,” says Barry Schwartz, University of Georgia sociology professor and author of George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol. “And Washington has been the very best target. It’s part of the decline of the dignity of the presidency and the debunking of the past in general.”
Washington’s ubiquity—the grim geezer on the dollar bill—has done little to salvage his place in history or in the affections of a now indifferent populace. “He’s certainly not obscure,” says Richard Brookhiser, author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. “He’s an instantly recognizable face. We all carry his picture in our pocket, but still there’s something kind of flat about him. He’s everywhere, but he’s two-dimensional. People know he’s the first president: If you push ’em, everybody knows that he won the war, and they’ve probably heard of the cherry tree, and that’s about it. All the potheads know he grew hemp at Mount Vernon, but beyond that it’s kind of misty.”
Gallup polls confirm how sharply Washington has fallen out of favor with mainstream America. In 1956, 47 percent of the citizenry rated him one of the three greatest presidents; by 1991, the figure had dropped to 21 percent. “The evidence is overwhelming,” says Schwartz. “The statistics, the polls, the number of citations in the Readers’ Guide [to Periodical Literature] and the New York Times and the Congressional Record have plummeted since the ’60s. The number of visits to Washington’s shrines has dropped.”
The debunkers have launched attacks at Washington’s sore spots—some deserved, some not. “He had slaves; he was restrained; he was not spontaneous; he was not warm; he was aristocratic; he was aloof; he was distant,” says Schwartz, ticking off a partial list. “He’s been a sitting duck for the deconstructionists.”
“He’s had a rough 20 years,” says James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon. “As education has changed and he’s dropped out of the textbooks, some of the qualities of Washington have become less appreciated. How much credit do people get today for being modest? In the 18th century, being a modest, successful person meant he was a gentleman and a terrific guy. Now, modesty doesn’t get you very far.”
“Some of the stuff we’re doing this year, we had to take him off the pedestal, so people can get to know him as a man,” says Rees. “Then we have to build him back up to the heroic man with the immaculate character and the great personality and the creative genius. He’s also just a good person. I hate to get down to morals, but really, throughout his life, he tried to do the right thing. You can hardly find a mistake he made that wasn’t a genuine mistake—there was nothing cunning or deceitful or any of those things. You won’t find much hypocrisy in George Washington.”
Mentioning that a recent weekday drew 10,000 visitors, Rees seems visibly moved, not just as a historian and employee but as a Washington disciple. “I’m thrilled with the response we’ve had this year,” he says. “It’s far exceeded my expectations, and it shows that people are hungry for good, old-fashioned heroes. We just have to get out there and put him back in the spotlight.”
To Schwartz, Mount Vernon’s bicentennial campaign, which boasts the use of a hired-gun PR firm to help coordinate events, shows how low Washington’s reputation has fallen: “The very fact that they need a restoration at Mount Vernon of his image, this whole effort to rejuvenate his image, says it all.”
But even as Washington picks up a wart here and a black eye there, signs that he is hitting the comeback trail are everywhere. Each generation finds and uses the Washington it needs. As with Elvis, there’s a Washington for everybody. Brookhiser’s book, published in 1996, helped kicked off a minirevival. For the first time in more than a generation, he attempted to present the man behind the myths. After years of exhaustive research, he concluded that Washington lived up to all that idolatry after all.
“When I was about two-thirds of the way through the project, I was reading a letter or address that was at some point of decision in his life, and I realized, ‘He hasn’t let me down here, either,’” says Brookhiser, who is currently preparing a PBS documentary on Washington. “I sort of had a flash that this guy is like a very deep pool of very clear water—and the further you go down, it’s still clear. He was this very clear, consistent man.”
Politicians of all stripes have grabbed Washington’s coattails for centuries. Like the loyal soldiers at Valley Forge, conservatives have never deserted their general, no matter what the polls show. Reagan hasn’t eclipsed him yet, even if the brazen renaming of National Airport seems ominous. For these patriotic tub-thumpers, the Clinton era has provided a perfect context to parade their version of the honest, virtuous Washington—the unassailable moral paragon. “Recent events form a kind of black-velvet backdrop for Washington’s career,” says Brookhiser. “So he is pertinent as a counterexample.”
Former Secretary of Education and full-time schoolmarm William Bennett has made a mint reprinting words of wisdom from Washington and other Founding Fathers. Bennett knows a sturdy old maxim when he sees one, and he has stuffed them into such best sellers as The Book of Virtues and Our Sacred Honor. In April, the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard ran a cover story, “Presidents Great and Small: Updating George Washington,” that argues for Washington’s relevance in today’s political scene. The cover illustration sums up the new take on an old idol: In the foreground, a Mount Rushmore-noggined Washington stands tall, clasping the lapels of his coat and defiantly returning the reader’s gaze. Behind him, a pint-sized Clinton stares off to the side, hands shoved into his pockets, shamed and humbled in the presence of the ultimate political father figure.
The Democrats have made their own claim on Washington. Not far from the front gate of Mount Vernon, next to a small, fenced-in meadow where sheep graze, there is a large tent with plank benches and sawdust on the ground. Inside, a 20-minute video shown on a big-screen TV tells a sort of Cliffs Notes version of Washington’s life.
Introducing the film, which runs continuously all day every day, is none other than Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley. “Hello, I’m Bill Bradley, and no, this is not my home, although it’s so peaceful and beautiful I wish it were,” he says innocuously. “This is Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.” It isn’t the White House, but for now, it will do: As a physical presence, Bradley is a natural for the part, at 6-foot-5 one of the few current politicians whom the strapping Washington couldn’t have pistol-whipped with one hand tied behind his back. Bradley strolls the estate and spews platitudes as if he were stumping—even to the point of addressing the dead idol: “Thank you, George Washington, for being there when we needed you. From where I’m standing, there’s no question about it: You’re still first in the hearts of your countrymen.”
When I first visited Mount Vernon as a schoolboy in the early ’70s, I found the place a major disappointment—not just a bore, but sort of a lie. No matter what the entrance sign claimed, this sure didn’t seem like the home of my George Washington.
This wasn’t the usual indifference of a preadolescent on a school field trip. I wanted to see the place. Growing up in Northern Virginia, I was a George Washington fan in the way I was a Redskins fan, due to geography and familiarity. There were traces of him everywhere, in the names of the courthouses and county buildings and shopping centers and streets.
Such memorials were fine, but what most impressed me were the roadside historical markers that detailed Washington’s career as a surveyor. From Old Town Alexandria all the way out past the Blue Ridge Mountains, it seemed that every swatch of land—much of it now under the developer’s backhoe—was part of an endless stretch that Washington had explored by horseback, more than 70,000 acres of formerly uncharted frontier country by the time he was 19.
Then there were his military exploits, first fighting Indians and then whipping the Redcoats, the world’s greatest army. Nothing could stop him, it seemed. Not horses getting shot from under him, not bullets tearing through his coat. (“I heard the bullets whistle,” he wrote his brother, “and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”) He was a field general who led his men into battle, unafraid of the fray—and also unafraid to hang traitors and deserters if need be.
As for the cherry tree tale, I dismissed it as Sunday-school fluff. No 6-year-olds I had ever known behaved so nobly. It was strictly Washington the explorer and warrior who sparked my imagination.
Finding out about Washington the slaveholder was troubling, though, especially considering the source where I learned it. Rep. Bartlett’s ’50s textbook, Virginia’s History, was the one I had in grade school. The passages he rhapsodized about were rooted in the Jim Crow era in which they were written: “On the big Virginia plantations, the men who worked in the fields and the other servants were Negro slaves. They belonged to the planters. The slaves lived in small cabins on the plantations. The planters gave their servants food and clothes. They took care of them when they were sick and when they were too old to work.”
Even when you’re barely 10, you know this is balderdash, if only by instinct (“They belonged to the planters” being particularly sinister syntax). My reaction wasn’t very enlightened, though. I simply ignored this unpleasant aspect of my hero because it didn’t match my romanticized conception. For that matter, I didn’t much care for Washington the statesman and gentleman farmer, either. So when our class took its trip down the tree-lined, shore-hugging George Washington Parkway to Mount Vernon, I went looking not for the national icon but the colonial era’s Marlboro Man.
The day was hot, the line was long, and Mount Vernon looked vaguely familiar, like a bigger, clumsier version of the Colonial-style tract homes that had begun to spring up all over the Northern Virginia suburbs. Inside was worse, stifling and oppressive, the dark rooms filled with old furniture and guides talking in hushed tones about chairs and paintings. The name Martha came up a few times, as if I cared a whit about domestic matters. Where in the hell did he keep his guns? I didn’t ask, though. They mentioned servants—who else was carrying around and polishing all this glittering dinnerware?—but never used the word “slaves.” And there were no stories about chopping down cherry trees.
Outside, on the spacious porch, a gust from the river momentarily refreshed, and we may have romped in the yard for a while, but soon we were corralled into some sort of death march down to Washington’s tomb. Here some ponderous eulogies were read aloud. The whole thing felt like a church service, and then the excursion to Mount Vernon was over. Yes, there were some empty outbuildings and a gift shop, but then it was back to the bus.
What I saw at Mount Vernon that day nearly three decades ago was the solemn, stark shrine that had been there for more than a century—and remained unchanged until recently. The place wasn’t meant to be a playground for school kids or a destination for tourists. It was simply what it was: a sanctuary for pilgrims.
In his novel Democracy, Henry Adams described a merry group of day trippers who take a steamer from D.C. down the Potomac to Mount Vernon. The time is 1879, nearly a century after Washington’s death, and he is at his peak as a national icon. After an agreeable visit, the travelers head back to the sordid capital of political intrigue and deceit; the protagonist, a young widow named Madeleine Lee, gazes at Mount Vernon as if at a holy vision: “As they steamed away, Mrs. Lee watched the sunny hill-side and the peaceful house above, until she could see them no more, and the longer she looked, the less she was pleased with herself….Why was it, she said bitterly to herself, that everything Washington touched, he purified, even down to the associations of his house? and why is that everything we touch seems soiled? Why do I feel unclean when I look at Mount Vernon?”
Mount Vernon, in all its various incarnations, owes its continued existence to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, formed all the way back in 1853. The country’s first national historical preservation organization, the Ladies’ Association gave itself a remarkable credo that bears quoting: “To perpetuate the sacred memory of ‘The Father of His Country’ and, with loving hands, to guard and protect the hallowed spot where rest his mortal remains. To forever hold, manage and preserve the estate, properties and relics at Mount Vernon, belonging to the Association, and under proper regulations, to open the same to inspection of all who love the cause of liberty and revere the name of Washington.”
When the Ladies took over Mount Vernon, it was in shambles, a sad, faded relic of its former glory. And just as they got the place fixed up, the Civil War broke out. Throughout the war, Mount Vernon remained the only neutral site in the country, and all soldiers laid down their arms before entering the estate. The Union and the Confederacy alike claimed Washington as their own; the South even took the equestrian statue of Washington in Richmond for its emblem.
Lincoln knew the importance of Washington’s Birthday, and during the war, he used the holiday for speeches and military strikes to invoke the memory of the hero and further glorify the Northern cause. In fact, Lincoln’s favorite book as a boy was Mason Locke Weems’ The Life of Washington, the morality tale that first presented the anecdote of the cherry tree. (Contrary to Bartlett’s paraphrase, Weems has 6-year-old George blurting, ‘I can’t tell a lie, Pa” [emphasis added], the only realistic detail in an otherwise outlandish fable.)
By the turn of the century, Lincoln had replaced Washington as the most popular president, according to Schwartz: “What happens is, the Civil War generation dies out and with it all of the hatred and anger at Lincoln. He was hated in the North, too—the South goes without saying. Don’t forget, half the North had voted against Lincoln in ’64. So Lincoln’s reputation soars during the Progressive Era.” A symbol of egalitarianism, Lincoln was perceived as the friend of the common man; it was then that the image of Washington as an aloof aristocrat took hold—a view that has stuck to this day.
Schwartz points to what he considers the defining moment when Lincoln and Washington both took the big fall: the drawing on the cover of a New Yorker magazine from February 1988. The icons are depicted handing each other valentines. The message: Valentine’s Day is a far bigger national event than either of the dead presidents’ birthdays.
It was during the ’80s that Mount Vernon officials first began to wrestle with the image problem, of both their idol and their estate. “Visitors told us, ‘We don’t know much about George Washington, and you didn’t teach us much about him,’” says Rees, who came on board around this time of upheaval.
“We didn’t do a terribly good job of interpreting the house,” says Rees. “We showed you the furniture more than we told what Washington did in that room and how it reflected his personality. I think now we do a better job of really giving you the feeling of Washington’s persona as you go through the house.”
The word “slave” used to be only whispered at Mount Vernon. Now costumed field workers are just one more component of the gussied-up glimpse into Washington’s life and times. The slave-life tours began five years ago, around the time that rival Founding Fathers’ homes such as Monticello, Gunston Hall, and Ash Lawn also broached the subject.
At the appointed hour, a petite, elderly woman arrives at the very edge of the bowling green. She is nattily dressed in a blue blazer and khaki skirt, still the standard uniform for all Mount Vernon interpreters. (The men wear khaki pants.) But she has added her own flamboyant touch, a bright red knit beret cocked jauntily to the side. Her name is Gladys Quander Tancil. The retired federal employee has been a historic interpreter here since 1975 and has led slave-life tours since 1995. Other interpreters give the tour as well, but the 78-year-old Tancil has a decidedly personal take on the subject.
“No, I was never a slave,” she tells her group, by way of introduction. “You wouldn’t believe how many people ask me that. I became interested in the story because my father’s father was an honest-to-goodness slave who died in 1919. I never dreamed I’d be talking to people about slavery—back then we didn’t talk about slavery at all. My grandfather was owned by a prominent lawyer in Alexandria, and actually, we were ashamed to talk about it. We didn’t tell anybody that Mr. Johnston owned my grandfather just like he would own a cat or a dog. But later we got very interested in our history. One woman came here and told me she didn’t come to hear about me nor my family but about George Washington, so if anybody here doesn’t want to hear about me I won’t say any more.”
The group members assure her that they are interested in whatever she wants to talk about. Tancil smiles appreciatively. She says she is also a descendant of Nancy Quander, who was a slave here at Mount Vernon.
“Everybody wants to know first: How did George Washington treat the slaves? That’s the biggest question,” she tells her small group. “Well, Mount Vernon rates him an average slaveholder. I mention that every time, and some people don’t like to hear that.”
“Now, Washington’s good side was that he did not break up families. On Sale Day, New Year’s Day, they’d break up families,” she says. “But his downside was that he was never satisfied with what they did. He was a perfectionist. Did anybody see Oprah’s show yesterday?” A couple of hands go up. “It was about perfectionists. They’re never satisfied, never happy, never pleased—well, Washington was like that. Nothing suited him. Everything had to be exact; he called the slaves’ work shabby.”
As proprietor of one of Virginia’s largest plantations, Washington was a frugal, practical businessman, far more successful as a farmer than Jefferson, for example, who died deeply in debt. He was a stern taskmaster and a hands-on manager with a hot temper, and he didn’t provide much in the way of rations for his slaves, just enough for bare subsistence. In the re-created slave quarters, a cramped room not far from the mansion, Tancil points to a plate on a wooden table: “Can you imagine working from sunup to sundown and all you got was five little fish and a quart of cornbread and water to cook it with?”
As Tancil explains, Washington was born into the institution of slavery as much as the slaves themselves, inheriting 11 upon his father’s death. Early on, he privately denounced slavery and decided he would neither buy nor sell slaves; but he remained mired in the complexities of the “peculiar institution” all his life. After his marriage to Martha Custis, who brought her own slaves, Mount Vernon boasted nearly 300. “He didn’t endorse slavery, but he was afraid to side with the Abolitionists,” says Tancil. “He was afraid to speak out against slavery because he wanted to keep friendly with the Southern planters whose economy depended on it. Slavery lasted 66 years after Washington died.”
Unlike other slaveowning Founding Fathers, Washington freed his personal slaves in his will. Much has been made of the fact that he liberated “his people,” as he called them, says Tancil. She has her own take on the matter: He did it to clear his troubled conscience. “I compare him to Pontius Pilate washing his hands.”
Tancil was interested in the slave-life tours from the start, but only on her own terms. For years, “They wanted to push it under the rug and make it sound like it was so fine,” she says, taking a break in between tours. “I told them I would be an interpreter, but I wasn’t going to dress up like a slave—don’t even look for it. I will be Phyllis Wheatley for them, though.”
For Tancil, Wheatley, who was America’s first published black poet, is as much an 18th-century hero as the master of Mount Vernon. Tancil is no overawed fan of Washington, that’s for sure.
But she does find him endlessly fascinating. “He was all right,” she allows. “But I think people built him up bigger than he was. He came at the right time and the right place.”
On the other hand, knee-jerk debunkers of the Washington mystique grate on her nerves as much as the idolaters do. She says Nathan McCall, author of Makes Me Wanna Holler, a memoir of growing up black in contemporary America, showed up in her group one day, claiming that Washington had fathered illegitimate children with his slaves. Tancil told him that there was simply no evidence to support this theory. Indeed, Washington was apparently sterile due to a teenage bout with smallpox; he and Martha had no children of their own, despite the fact that she had two children from a previous marriage. McCall refused to listen to Tancil, and he later wrote a piece slamming the slave-life tour as a sham.
No, says Tancil, Washington wasn’t perfect, but he was no hypocritical scoundrel, either. “The general,” as she often calls him, did the best he could with what he had. But she will toss him no stray laurels; she’s got none to spare. She saves her wreaths for special ceremonies down at the slave memorial, down by the river, where nearly 100 Mount Vernon slaves are buried in unmarked graves, their heads pointed toward the Potomac, toward Africa.
She always ends her slave-life tours the same way: “My mother always said the slave was a forgotten person, but in her words, ‘You’re only remembered by the things you’ve done.’”
I have returned to Mount Vernon one more time. As always, the mansion looks smaller. Or have the suburban tract houses simply gotten bigger? Taking the tour, I make sure to look for a few details that Tancil has mentioned. In the dining room and an upstairs bedroom, there they are: long, fancy cords that snake up the walls and along the ceilings to an outside bell. This was how the Washingtons summoned their house slaves. In the study, we get a glimpse of Washington’s private sanctuary, in typical disarray, boasting a portrait of his brother Lawrence, who named the estate after a British admiral he served under. Along with the group is a house inspector from Michigan visiting for the first time. Though he points out a door frame that is wildly off-center, he remains impressed with the house’s construction.
Afterward, I wander the grounds. Even on a busy spring day, it’s easy to break away from the crowds and lose yourself at Mount Vernon, still sprawling at nearly 300 acres of heavily buffered property. Now, when you walk down the South Lane past the outbuildings, some markers are provided to describe the structures. Outside the smokehouse, for example, you get this tidbit, worth any number of cured hams hanging from the rafters for giving some flavor of Washington’s personality: “You know, Virginia ladies value themselves on the goodness of their bacon.”
As the sun goes down, the line is still long outside the mansion. I descend the steep slope of the East Lawn, down through the wooded deer park to the very edge of the Potomac. Looking up at the mansion, I have a similar angle to the one that Henry Adams’ heroine had from the deck of the 19th-century steamer. Instead of making me despondent, though, the view is reassuring, even inspiring. From where I stand, I can barely make out the people lounging on the porch, getting comfortable in the Windsor chairs, trying Mount Vernon on for size. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Jonathan Weiner.