George Washington's Mount Vernon
Over the course of American history, no one person's celebrity has ever garnered the national esteem bestowed to George Washington: America's premier founding father. He served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, helped outline the U.S. Constitution, and was elected the First President of the United States. His brilliant efforts on the battlefield and in office helped establish the foundation of a nation and fostered the ideals for American advancement. He is the epitome of a national hero whose legacy is still passionately championed to this day.
THE LIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON
George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. His father, Augustine Washington, was a planter, land speculator, and county court justice—positions that earned the Washington family considerable wealth and distinction in the community. Between 1734 and 1738, the Washington family resided at Little Hunting Creek Plantation, Mount Vernon’s predecessor. However, George spent most of his adolescence at Ferry Farm, his family’s second plantation situated along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Very little is known about George Washington’s early years other than he received a grade school education. There are, however, several fables tailored around his youth, most notably his encounter with a cherry tree. As the story goes, young George damaged/chopped down one of his father’s cherry trees with a hatchet. When his father confronted him about the incident, George replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” His father, astonished by his son’s truthfulness, embraced him and praised his virtuosity. While the sentiment of the story is indeed touching, it was fabricated by Washington’s first biographer, Mason Locke Weems. His Life of Washington (1800) portrays George as a perfect role model for young Americans, demonstrative of the ideals and merits this country was founded upon. This particular story appears in the fifth edition of his book, published in 1806.
When Augustine Washington died in 1743, George received a small portion of his estate. The majority was passed to his older half-brothers. Lawrence, the oldest, inherited Mount Vernon. Sadly, he died in 1752 following a prolonged battle with tuberculosis; however, Lawrence was a beloved role model to George who helped advance his standing in society and drove his desire to enter military service.
George had plans to join the British Navy, but following the protests of his mother, Mary Ball Washington, he decided to pursue a career in surveying. He was mentored by long-time family friend George William Fairfax (whose family owned Belvoir Plantation neighboring Mount Vernon) and was appointed as the surveyor for Culpeper County in 1749. Washington left the surveying profession after a couple of years and in 1752, began his military career serving as a major in the Virginia militia.
In the autumn of 1753, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie was growing increasingly wary of French settlers invading the Ohio Territory, land he believed belonged to Virginia and the English Crown. He organized a diplomatic expedition to the area to persuade the French to leave. Washington, despite having no background in the French language and neither any prior military nor diplomatic experience, enthusiastically volunteered to lead this mission in order to display his leadership and loyalty to Governor Dinwiddie and King George II.
Washington’s diplomatic party left Williamsburg on October 31, 1753, and reached Fort Le Boeuf on December 11. After a series of negotiations with French commander Jacques Le Gardeur, the settlers refused to leave. Disheartened by their failed efforts to dislodge the French, Washington’s party made the perilous journey back home through harsh winter weather and hazardous terrain. Washington kept a journal of his 900-mile, 2.5 month-long expedition and published his accounts with the French and the climate in The Journal of Major George Washington (1754). His Journal gained considerable notoriety in the Americas and Britain and significantly contributed to Washington’s increased celebrity.
In May 1754, Washington, now a lieutenant colonel, embarked on another journey to the Ohio. This time he was accompanied by members of his Virginia Regiment, twelve Mingo warriors, and their leader, Tanacharison (Half King). On the evening of May 27, 1754, Washington was informed of a French reconnaissance party near his camp. He decided to conduct a surprise attack and capture the French party the next day. On May 28, Washington’s troops took up positions along the bluffs overlooking the French encampment and waited to advance. Suddenly, gunfire erupted and the French were thrown into disarray. The skirmish lasted fifteen minutes and ended in the deaths of one Virginian and thirteen French, including commander Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. How the engagement started and the manner of Jumonville’s demise are shrouded in mystery, but it was rumored that Half King axed a wounded Jumonville to death in a ritualistic fashion following the ceasefire. The controversial actions of Washington and his men at the Battle of Jumonville Glen were enough to ignite the beginnings of the French and Indian War.
Knowing retaliation was inevitable, Washington constructed Fort Necessity in the Great Meadow of the Ohio River Valley and requested the assistance of an additional 240 militiamen to defend its position. The fort was hastily constructed and quite vulnerable to attack, but Washington believed his force of 400 men could withstand a French assault until more British troops arrived.
When word of Jumonville Glen reached Fort Duquesne, French commander Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur ordered Jumonville’s brother, Louis, to assail Fort Necessity with a force of 600 French-Canadians and 100 Native soldiers. French and Indian forces arrived in the Great Meadow on July 1 and attacked Washington’s position on July 3. Surrounded and hopelessly low on supplies, Washington was forced to surrender. The French drafted articles of capitulation that allowed British forces to return to Virginia in peace but placed blame of Jumonville’s “assassination” on Washington’s shoulders. With a poor understanding of French and misinterpretation of the document, Washington signed, unknowingly accepting responsibility for that event.
Washington’s surrender at Fort Necessity was far from his last military experience in the frontier. In the spring of 1755, Washington served as an aide to General Edward Braddock during his march to Fort Duquesne. On July 9, when Braddock’s army was only ten miles away from Fort Duquesne, his forces were ambushed by French and Indian troops in the disastrous Battle of the Monongahela. Of the 2600 British soldiers engaged in this fight, 977 were listed as casualties. Braddock himself was mortally wounded in the fighting. With the commander incapacitated, Washington took control of the shattered army and managed to organize a retreat, escaping complete annihilation, but not before having four bullets pierce his coat and two horses shot from underneath him. His heroic efforts at Monongahela earned Washington the rank of colonel and commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces by the Virginia General Assembly.
In 1758, Washington once again marched to Fort Duquesne, this time under the command of General John Forbes. Six thousand men took part in the Forbes Expedition to expel the French from the confluence of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. A series of minor engagements were fought between Forts Cumberland and Duquesne, each one resulting in British victory. On November 23, 1758, the French abandoned Fort Duquesne and burned it to the ground. The British had secured the Ohio River Valley.
Following the success of the Forbes Expedition, Washington emerged as one of the colonies’ first war heroes. While his public image gleamed, the British regular army failed to recognize his efforts and denied Washington full commission in the King’s Army. In lieu of the snub, Washington resigned from his position in late 1758 and returned to private life at Mount Vernon.
On January 6, 1759, he married a wealthy widow named Martha Dandridge Custis and became stepfather to her two children, John Parke and Patsy. The wealth Washington obtained through marriage allowed him to expand his plantation and achieve new standing in Virginia society. He became a Freemason and gained political office in the House of Burgesses.
Throughout the 1750s and 1760s, Washington studied several innovative farming techniques called “the New Husbandry,” cycling fields with livestock and cash crops. In 1766, Washington transitioned his main cash crop from tobacco to wheat, since it did not deplete the soil like tobacco nor was it taxed as heavily.
Following the French and Indian War, Britain heavily levied the American colonies in order to pay off the conflict’s expenses. Common household goods, such as tobacco, sugar, and tea, rose drastically in price. Many colonists, including Washington, protested vigorously against taxation without representation and boycotted of British goods. However, taxes continued to be imposed.
The unjust acts of King George III and Parliament prompted the colonies to go to war. The Second Continental Congress named Washington Commander-in-Chief of the newly-formed Continental Army on June 14, 1775. The Continental Army at this point in time was nothing more than a ragtag assembly of untrained state militias numbering roughly 5,000 men, whereas the British Army was arguably the most elite military force in the world—organized, disciplined, technologically-advanced, and ten times the strength of the Americans.
Washington’s first action during the War of Independence came in March 1776 when the Continental Army drove the remaining British troops from Boston, Massachusetts. However, later that August, 32,000 British troops under General William Howe landed on Staten Island, New York. Washington organized the New York Campaign to protect New York City from invasion but his army was driven back by superior British forces at the Battles of Long Island and Kip’s Bay. While they managed to claim victory at the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, the Continental Army continued to withdraw northward from its defenses of New York City, encountering a string of defeats along the way. The greatest defeat came on November 16, 1776, when the British army defeated Continental troops at Fort Washington, forcing the surrender of Colonel Robert Magaw and his 2,800 men. The last formidable defenses of New York had fallen and the city was effectively under British control. Washington and his shattered army fled across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
The relentless defeats of the New York Campaign were extremely demoralizing for the patriot cause and Washington knew he had to achieve a sound victory in order to continue the fight for independence. He saw an opportunity for such victory against Colonel Johann Rall’s Hessian troops stationed in Trenton, New Jersey. On Christmas night, 1776, Washington and 2,400 Continentals crossed the Delaware River and launched a daring surprise attack. The Hessians were taken completely by surprise, many of whom were still asleep in their tents after celebrating the Christmas holiday. The Continental Army swiftly invaded Trenton and forced the surrender of 900 enemy soldiers. Rall was mortally wounded in the engagement. Those who surrendered at the Battle of Trenton were taken prisoner and transported across the Delaware later that day.
When word of the Hessian surrender at Trenton reached British forces in New York, General Charles, the Earl Cornwallis, mobilized his 8,000-man army to engage the Continental forces. Washington, anticipating a strong British response, shuttled his army back across the Delaware again on December 30, 1776, and took up defensive positions along Assunpink Creek outside of Trenton.
On January 2, 1777, Cornwallis’s army arrived in Trenton and engaged the well-defended American positions in the Second Battle of Trenton. Cornwallis launched three successive assaults against the Continentals along Assunpink Creek, but the narrow bridges and fords congested the offensives and drove the Redcoats back, sustaining heavy loss of life.
Washington knew that while his men had defended their positions valiantly, they couldn’t hold them through another day of fighting, especially if Cornwallis flanked their lines. That night, Washington ordered campfires to create the illusion of activity while his army silently withdrew north toward Princeton. The Continental Army engaged Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood’s 1,200 troops on January 3 during the Battle of Princeton and proved victorious once again, inflicting 230 casualties and capturing 300 enemy soldiers. Cornwallis was dumbfounded (to say the least) when he discovered the American camps at Trenton deserted the following morning. Washington’s keen maneuvering helped save the Continental Army from sure destruction and his victories at Trenton and Princeton helped revive morale, bolster enthusiasm for independence, and influence eventual French participation in the war.
After several years of guerilla warfare and espionage against British forces in New York, Washington mobilized his forces south in late summer 1781 to besiege Lord Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis was awaiting evacuation at the town’s port after a long and tiresome Southern Campaign. He didn’t realize, however, that the French navy had formed a blockade around the Chesapeake and soundly defeated the British navy earlier that September. While the Redcoats stood idle in Yorktown, French and American infantry forces under Marquis de Lafayette converged on the Virginia Peninsula and blocked Cornwallis’s only avenue of retreat. The British Army was essentially trapped.
The Siege of Yorktown began on September 14 and lasted for nearly a month. The combined Franco-American forces under Washington and Comte de Rochambeau slowly dislodged British infantry from Yorktown’s outer defenses and used artillery to bombard the British into submission. Cornwallis and his 7,000-man army surrendered on October 19, 1781. While the American victory at Yorktown didn’t end the war, it opened up a series of peace negotiations that culminated in the Treaty of Paris and American Independence in September 1783.
In March 1783, while negotiations were still ongoing, internal dissention between members of Congress and the Continental Army jeopardized everything the United States had achieved during the Revolutionary War. Dissatisfaction with Congress’s poor financial support and lack of regular pay impelled high-ranking officers to threaten a military coup against the governing body and crown Washington king, a plot known as the Newburgh Conspiracy. When Washington heard about this plan he intervened and delivered a powerful speech to his officers. As he read his address, Washington removed some reading glasses from his coat pocket and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The sentiment of Washington’s sacrifices for independence greatly moved his men and deterred them from pursuing the conspiracy.
Washington resigned his military commission as Commander-in-Chief on December 23, 1783, and returned to Mount Vernon in pursuit of a private life. His first order of business was to increase commerce and transportation opportunities on the Potomac River that extended into the frontier. On March 28, 1785, Washington hosted the Mount Vernon Conference where representatives from Maryland and Virginia discussed Potomac River navigation and economic rights. Out of the conference came the Mount Vernon Compact, a thirteen-point document that set the precedent for interstate cooperation, toll duties, commerce regulations, and fishing rights. The meeting also established the Patowmack Company—a partnership between Maryland and Virginia to build canals around the treacherous rapids of Great Falls. The commercial principles established during the Mount Vernon Conference influenced the economic tenets of the U.S. Constitution nearly three years later.
In the years following the Revolution, a young United States struggled to find its footing. The Articles of Confederation, our country’s first constitution, were incredibly ineffective, voiding national powers from issuing taxes, standardizing laws, and regulating commerce, among other abilities. In 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve states convened in Philadelphia for a Constitutional Convention and asked Washington (who was in the midst of retirement) to preside over the meetings. He accepted the appointment and helped establish a new structure of government for the United States.
When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, state representatives unanimously elected Washington to serve as the nation’s Chief Executive. Although Washington wanted to enjoy a quiet life of retirement, his dedication to the advancement of his country influenced him to accept the nomination. On April 30, 1789, Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States at Federal Hall in New York City. Chancellor Robert Livingston issued the 35-word oath of office while Secretary of State Samuel Otis held the Bible under Washington’s right hand.
Washington served two terms as President and established a solid foundation of governance for the United States through numerous acts of legislation and policy, more than what one article can adequately describe in a concise manner. Instead, we’ll cover some of the major issues Washington faced during his presidential tenure and how he went about addressing them:
War Debt—the young United States faced economic disaster following the Revolution. American businesses were reeling from a post-war economy, infrastructure remained war-torn, and the Articles of Confederation did nothing to produce revenue nor repay debts owed to France and Britain. Washington instructed his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to develop a plan to rescue the American economy from total collapse. Hamilton presented an idea for a National Bank, which would give more power to federal government, stimulate investment, and regulate a national currency. Washington approved his Secretary’s proposal and signed the Bank Act of 1791, which chartered the First National Bank of the United States.
Supreme Court—in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, a governing judiciary body was needed to ensure balance of powers, protect constitutional rights, and uphold federal laws. Washington’s Judiciary Act of 1789 created a Supreme Court and named John Jay as its Chief Justice. His act also established the position of Attorney General, which was first held by Edmund Randolph.
Freedoms and Rights—Washington approved the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments of the Constitution) on December 15, 1791. These amendments guaranteed American citizens personal liberties and unalienable rights, which addressed the concerns of Anti-Federalists who feared a strong central authority would abuse power and take advantage of the populace.
Slavery—as Washington aged, his view on slavery changed considerably. As a young man, he was indifferent to the institution and saw it necessary to foster economic and agricultural growth. However, as a General and a President, he found it difficult to justify slavery in a country founded on freedom and predicted that the institution would tear the country apart. Regional differences already presented in Congress. Southern delegates (who held considerable political power at the time) influenced Washington to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which made it a federal crime to aid and abed escaped slaves. The following year, Washington signed the Slave Trade Act, which restricted American vessels from participating in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Westward Expansion—American settlers flooded the western frontier following independence. In doing so, they infringed upon Indian lands that were protected by British treaties created before their Revolutionary War defeat. Washington saw the volatility of the situation and diplomatically tried to find a middle ground. He issued the Proclamation of 1790, which reinforced the territorial agreements made with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians, but had little efficacy on the settlers who continued to confiscate Indian lands. Violent struggles soon erupted across the frontier and Washington had no choice but to quell them. In 1794, he sent Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to the Northwest Territory to suppress the Indian rebellions and secure room for expansion. Wayne’s Legion of the United States engaged Indian and Canadian forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794, and soundly routed the opposition. Wayne’s victory resulted in the Treaty of Greenville, which surrendered all Indian claims in the Ohio Territory to the United States.
Whiskey Rebellion—in January 1791, Congress passed a tax on distilled spirits, which placed great economic hardship on small western distilleries. Protesters in western Pennsylvania organized a revolt in mid-1794 that quickly turned violent. In response, Washington personally led 13,000 militiamen to quell the insurrection and enforce the national law. The rebels quickly disbanded following Washington’s arrival and this display of power reinforced the central authority of the federal government.
Britain—unsurprisingly, Britain held hostile attitudes towards the United States following the War for Independence. British troops still occupied forts in the western territories and Canada, preventing American expansion, and harassed U.S. vessels in the Atlantic. Not looking to get into another war, Washington sent John Jay to England to discuss diplomatic resolutions to the animosity. The result was Jay’s Treaty: Britain agreed to abandon forts in the Great Lakes region and open lines of trade between the British West Indies and the United States. It did not, however, resolve the issue of impressment (the forced conscription of American sailors into the British Navy) which made the agreement incredibly controversial.
France—in the 1790s, France was in the midst of its own revolution. The monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had toppled and French diplomats requested the assistance of the United States to aid in their rebellion. The U.S. was unable to offer any support due to the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 and the tenets of Jay’s Treaty in 1794. Needless to say, the French were outraged that the United States didn’t reciprocate their assistance during the Revolutionary War. In response, they sent diplomat Citizen Genet to the States to recruit privateers, exploit political divides, and undermine the Neutrality Act. When Washington found out about Genet’s deceptive undertaking, he denounced them and sent him back to France. The growing bitterness between the U.S. and France would lead to the “Quasi War” (1798 – 1800).
Party Politics—there was a growing divide in Washington’s Cabinet between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (later the Democratic-Republicans). In fact, Thomas Jefferson resigned from his position as Secretary of State due to embittered political disagreements with his colleague Alexander Hamilton. Differing political ideologies disseminated into the populace and were fostered by the creation of Democratic-Republican Societies. Federalists held the belief that these clubs promoted faction and would undermine political stability. Washington, who was never a proponent of party politics, agreed and publicly disparaged these societies arguing their divisiveness. He received abundant criticism and backlash for his comments and many of his constituents remarked that his outspokenness on political parties was his greatest fault.
On September 19, 1796, Washington issued his Farewell Address and declined a third term for the presidency. He outlined his vision for the country’s development and set the precedent for presidents to come. He retired to Mount Vernon later in 1797.
On December 12, 1799, Washington caught a cold while inspecting his farms at Mount Vernon. He returned that night in frigid, wet clothes and refused to change out of them before supper. The illness progressed over the next couple days to the point where Washington could barely talk. On December 14, Martha sent for the family physician, Dr. James Craik, who administered bleeding and blister treatments to no avail. Washington succumbed to a bacterial infection of the epiglottis later that evening.
In his will, Washington granted freedom to the 123 slaves he owned following his wife’s death (the other 194 slaves at Mount Vernon were either dower slaves belonging to the Custis family or borrowed from neighbors). He also made provisions for financial and educational support and established a permanent fund to provide clothing and food for those too elderly or sick to support themselves upon emancipation. Children who were too young or without parent were placed under guardianship of the state, taught how to read and write, and apprenticed in a “useful occupation.” George Washington hoped that other American slaveholders would follow his example—he was the only founding father to grant freedom to his slaves after death. On January 1, 1801, Martha freed Washington’s slaves. She would pass nearly a year-and-a-half later on May 22, 1802.
MOUNT VERNON HISTORIC SITE
Mount Vernon was originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, a 1.5-story home built by George’s father, Augustine. The estate was inherited by Lawrence Washington in 1743 following his father’s death and renamed Mount Vernon in honor of Lawrence’s naval commander Admiral Edward Vernon. Lawrence died of tuberculosis in 1752 and left to his daughter, Sarah, who died two years later. Anne Fairfax Washington, Lawrence’s widow, obtained rights to the property and leased it out George in 1754. When Anne died in 1761, George Washington formally inherited the estate.
Washington constantly expanded Mount Vernon over his 45 years of residence. In 1754, Mount Vernon was a 3,500 square-foot house situated on 3,000 acres of land. By 1799, the house had grown into an 11,000 square-foot mansion on 7,600 acres of land.
Mount Vernon remained in the Washington household following George’s death until 1853, when John Augustine Washington III (George’s great-grandnephew) sold the estate to Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) for $200,000. The MVLA made great efforts to restore the estate to its colonial glory and save it from the destruction of the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate soldiers visited the property, but were asked to lay down their arms before entering. The MVLA’s dedication to preservation and historical accuracy has helped maintain Mount Vernon’s significance and grandeur for over 165 years, making it one of the most-visited historical landmarks in the nation.
The $20 admission to Mount Vernon is well worth the cost. It’s not just a mansion, but an entire complex of farms, outbuildings, museums, trails, restaurants, shops, and so much more! Every admission comes with a timed ticket tour of the Mansion House, so make sure you are in line to tour the house on time. Otherwise, you are free to stroll the grounds and see the sights Mount Vernon has to offer.
I had a few hours between when I arrived and when my tour was scheduled, so I decided to explore the property as much as I could. I started at the Bowling Green—a well-manicured level lawn—and proceeded left to the Upper Gardens, which reflect the naturalistic styles of English floriculture with strict symmetry and simple geometric lines. The area also contains a greenhouse for tropical vegetation and Washington’s botanical/experimental garden—a testing area for exotic plants where Washington would observe and record sproutings and characteristics of growth.
Adjacent to the Upper Garden are the Slave Quarters—separated into men’s and women’s wards—the Gardener’s House, Blacksmith Shop, and Shoemaker’s Shop. The female slaves who lived in these quarters performed sewing, cooking, and laundry duties for the household while the men mainly worked as servants, craftsmen, and laborers. In 1799, about 87 of the 318 slaves at Mount Vernon worked as house servants for the Washingtons while more than 200 others were housed in cabins on the property’s outlying farms.
Across the Mansion Circle is the Kitchen—built separate from the Mansion to reduce the risk of fire—and the Kitchen (Lower) Gardens, which was overseen by Martha Washington. The Kitchen Gardens have been continuously cultivated since the 1760s and produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs from colonial times.
Down the road from the Kitchen and its garden are the Smokehouse, Wash House, and Clerk’s Quarters. To the left of these buildings are a unique architectural feature called ‘Ha-Ha Walls.’ These brick walls were built on a sloped terrain, even with the top level of the Mansion lawn, and used to keep farm animals away from the Mansion without obstructing the view of the pastoral landscape. Ha-Ha Walls are believed to be named as such because it’s easy to stumble over them without being aware!
At the edge of the Ha-Ha Walls are the Ice House and Old Vault—the original interment building for George and Martha Washington and twenty other family members. In 1831, their bodies were reinterred in the New Tomb located a couple hundred yards south. Many visitors take the opportunity to lay down wreaths or roses and pay their respects at this founding father’s final resting place.
From the New Tomb, you can take a short path to the Slave Memorial, which marks the area of a slave graveyard. In 1929, the MVLA dedicated a monument to the memory of the unknown slaves buried there—believed to be the first commemoration to recognize enslaved dead. No records exist that account the exact number of slaves buried in the graveyard, but historians estimate between 100 and 150 are currently interred. The current monument there was dedicated in 1983.
It’s a short downhill walk from the gravesites to the Wharf. Washington owned a profitable fishing business on the Potomac River and operated three fisheries along its shore. These operations would sometimes turn more profit than his cash crop cultivation. During peak seasons, the fisheries would catch more than 1 million fish from the river in a matter of weeks. The current wharf was constructed in 1860 by engineer Montgomery C. Meigs, one of the architects for Arlington Cemetery and the U.S. Capitol Dome.
Bordering the wharf is the Pioneer Farm at Dogue Run. This living history area demonstrates life at Mount Vernon’s outlying farms and some of Washington’s experimental agricultural techniques. At the end of the Farm is the Sixteen-Sided Barn, an innovative grain processing and storage building. Originally constructed between 1792 and 1795, this two-story barn contains a top-level circular treading floor that was powered by horses and mules to process the grain. As the wheat was processed, seeds would fall from the stalk through the gaps in the floor and into the granary below, which significantly increased efficiency compared to manual processing.
After finishing my tour of the grounds, it was time to tour the Mansion House. While waiting in line, I had the prolonged opportunity to appreciate the detailed architecture of the house. The outside of the mansion is decorated with wood siding made to look like stone, a stylistic effect called rustication. Wooden panels were cut and beveled to resemble stone blocks and coated with a mixture of paint and sand to create a stone-like texture. A fascinating effect for a magnificent house.
The tour group made its way through the Servant’s Hall and into the New Room to begin the tour. The New Room was constructed between 1776 and 1787 as part of Washington’s final expansion project and features two-story-high ceilings, ornate molding, and extremely fine furnishings. We then walked out onto the Piazza—arguably the most distinctive architectural feature of the mansion—overlooking the Potomac.
From the Piazza, we reentered the mansion’s Central Passage and observed the parlor rooms: the Front Parlor, the Little Parlor, and the West Parlor. The Front Parlor is an elaborately-decorated room that served as the primary formal entertaining space and displayed Martha Washington’s portrait collection. The Little Parlor was originally a first-floor bed chamber that was converted into a music and family room while the West Parlor served as public entertaining space. Adjacent to the parlors are the Old Chamber—a ground-floor guest bedroom—and the Dining Room, which is painted in a stunning verdigris green.
The tour continued upstairs to the second floor where the majority of the bedchambers are located, each one decorated in a unique style. The Lafayette Room (the chambers where Marquis de Lafayette is believed to have stayed) is furnished in late-18th century French fashion while the neighboring Chintz room is inspired by Eastern cultures. At the end of the second floor is Washington’s Bedchamber, the room where he died in 1799. We finished the tour in Washington’s Study located directly beneath his bedchambers. This was Washington’s escape from the public eye where he could write correspondence and enjoy some leisurely reading in peace. In all, the Mansion tour took about a half-hour to complete.
After touring the Mansion and its grounds, you can take a shuttle to the Distillery and Gristmill located a just few miles away. The gristmill was originally constructed in 1771 and was capable of producing 5,000 – 8,000 pounds of flour per day. It fell into disrepair in the 1840s and was torn down in 1850. The current gristmill was reconstructed in 1932.Washington’s distillery was constructed in 1797 and operated by Scotsman James Anderson. What started as a small operation quickly transformed into one of the nation’s biggest distilleries by 1799, producing nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey. However, the production didn’t last long as the facility drastically reduced operations following Washington’s death. It was burned down in 1814. The distillery site was excavated by archaeologists between 1999 and 2006 and the current building was constructed in 2007.
Mount Vernon is a fantastic getaway from the hustle and bustle of Washington D.C. and an extraordinary opportunity to learn more about the Father of Our Country! It offers insightful analyses into Washington's public and private lives and accurately portrays the functions and attitudes of his plantation community. Mount Vernon's history, architecture, and agriculture are all incredibly enlightening and entertaining, making it a must-visit destination for anyone in the Washington Metropolitan Area.
Visit Mount Vernon's website for more information on Washington and his estate and be sure to check out the Virtual Mansion Tour while you're there, too!