Wednesday, December 14, 2011

George Washington Slept Here

While many places can accurately state "George Washington slept here" - and many, many more do so falsely - it is here at Mount Vernon that Washington slept most often, and still does. He died 212 years ago today, and is buried in a crypt on the grounds of his beloved plantation on the banks of the Potomac River. On more than one occasion, Congress attempted to have the body moved to nearby Washington, D.C., in what they felt would be a more fitting tribute to "the father of his country". But each time, representatives of southern states objected and the plans were shelved. There was even a thwarted attempt to steal his remains in 1831. Finally, in 1832 the inner vault to Washington's crypt was sealed for good, and the keys thrown into the river.

Washington came from a wealthy plantation family, but Mount Vernon was never intended to be his. In accordance with Southern plantation hierarchy, the whole kit and kaboodle was to go to his older, half-brother Lawrence, who would then pass it on to his first born son. But as luck would have it - for George anyway - Lawrence met with an early death, and left no heirs. So when George's father died, the entire operation passed on to him. At that time it was approximately 4,00 acres and primarily produced tobacco using slave labor. But George brought numerous innovations to the plantation, reducing the need for human bondage, and more than once doubled its size.

An example of his innovation: Washington felt like there was so much competition for tobacco in Virginia, that he stopped growing it entirely by 1766. He planted instead wheat, corn, flax, and hemp. The wheat and corn was ground at his own gristmill - powered by a nearby creek - to be sold at market and for conversion into booze at his onsite distillery. At one point, Washington was among the nation's largest distillers of whiskey. The flax and hemp were extremely valuable commodities used in making fabric, dye, paper, medicines, rope, food, and more. You may recognize hemp as the low-potency cousin of the marijuana plant, which was so vital to colonial life in America, there was once a mandate for planters to grow it. Of course if you tried either of these endeavors today, you'd be locked up as a moonshiner and a drug dealer. But in the mid to late 1700s, they made Washington a very rich man indeed.

In fact, after marrying into the Custis family - Martha's klan - it is estimated that he was one of the richest men in America. So you can imagine that the outbreak of war with the British was not exactly good for business. Yet he stepped up anyway, and took command of the rag-tag Continental Army to fight the mightiest military force in the world. Think about that. It'd be a bit like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet dropping everything to march into the sausage grinder that was the British Army. But he did it anyway. And while he lost most of the battles he fought in, he - and his fledgling nation - ultimately prevailed. Upon his victory, he voluntarily surrendered his command demonstrating his commitment to a military controlled by a civilian government. And had he not been elected the first president of the nation, he was fully prepared to return to his beloved Mount Vernon, and resume his "regular" life.

His life was so extraordinary, in fact, that it has always puzzled me as to why the need for so many myths about the man. Take the cherry tree story, for example. You know the one that says he admitted to his father, after having dispatched with his prize cherry tree, "I cannot tell a lie". There isn't one shred of evidence to support such a story, and there is a good deal of it to suggest that it was entirely fabricated by one Mason Locke Weems. Weems wrote a book in 1850 with the catchy title of "The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen". In it, he recounts the cherry tree story, and it seems to have taken on a life of its own from there. Then there's the wooden teeth business. Washington had awful dental problems, of this there is no doubt. In fact, when he was elected president, he had exactly one tooth left in his head. All of the others had been extracted - without the benefit of painkillers - in varying degrees of decay and abscess. The many dentures Washington owned in his lifetime were made from various forms of ivory and bone, and one even had actual human teeth. They were attached to his sole surviving tooth via a painful tangle of wires and hooks. Remember that this was the richest man in the country, and these solutions represented the "best money could buy". But wooden teeth he never owned.

Another reason there is a good deal of misinformation regarding Washington is that most of his writings and material possessions were lost. Upon his death, Martha burned all of their correspondences. And while George had expressed concerns numerous times about his diaries and plantation manifests after his death, these too were allowed to largely slip away. Mount Vernon itself fell into a terrible state of disrepair after passing through the hands of several Washington heirs (he fathered no children). In 1848 it was offered for sale to both the U.S. government and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Both declined, and it nearly went on the scrap heap. But in 1858, a group called the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union agreed to buy the mansion and the 500 acres of plantation that remain today. During the Civil War that followed almost immediately thereafter, both sides agreed to spare the landmark of any further destruction. After the war, a restoration and reconstruction project began which continues to this day.

You can visit Mount Vernon daily from a timeshare rental in nearby Alexandria, VA, or at the National Harbor in Fort Washington, MD. Wyndham has properties in both locations and each has Metro options available to get you to and from Mount Vernon. Plan a full day (or two) if you really want to do the man and his home justice.

Well, I am off to catch the George Washington Masonic Memorial tour here in Alexandria. Washington was the first of several U.S. presidents belonging to the various orders of Freemasons. All 51 national Masonic organizations chipped in to build this monstrous combination of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Neoclassical architecture, as a tribute to the first president. I have become convinced that it holds the lost symbol required to finally reveal the secrets (and treasure) of the Knights Templar. Of course I was convinced I saw Dom DeLuise in New Orleans last Mardi Gras, despite the fact that he died in 2009. Turns out it was Paul Prudhomme, who now has a 500-foot restraining order against me.

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