America is a relatively young nation and lacks the intriguing monarchical histories of European and Asian states. No royal palaces grace our shores and no mischievous princes keep the paparazzi on their toes. The story might have been different had our first president, George Washington, decided to call himself “king.” Instead he retired after two terms, to the befuddlement of 18th century rulers everywhere.
After winning the Revolutionary War against England and helping to create the United States of America, Washington was eager to return to the simple life he had enjoyed at his family farm, Mount Vernon.
Washington inherited the estate in 1754 and turned the unassuming farmhouse into the stately 21-room mansion it remains today. Made of wood which was rusticated to imitate sandstone, the mansion has been painstakingly restored and decorated to reflect its 1799 grandeur.
Each room is painted a vibrant hue that was popular at the time, from verdigris green to Prussian blue. Some of the furnishings are original to the house, while others are gifts of Washington’s heirs and others are privately-owned period pieces (for which reason no photographs are allowed inside). Family photos adorn the walls and each room looks warm and inviting.
Perhaps that’s partly why the Washingtons received so many guests – 677 in one year alone! Many were friends and relations, but some were total strangers, drawn out of respect for the president and simple curiosity. Can you imagine rolling up to the White House today and asking to stay with the Obamas?!
The outbuildings on either side of the mansion were used for essential functions such as laundry, home repairs and food preparation and storage. Washington’s wife, Martha, took great pains to feed her many guests high quality meals, which contained a shocking amount of calories by today’s standards. Her famous Christmas cake recipe calls for 40 eggs and four pounds of butter! No wonder gout was such a common affliction back then!
Mount Vernon was a working farm and the livestock raised there were a source of both food and clothing. Hundreds of cows and hogs were needed to sustain daily operations, while the wool from the large flock of sheep was woven and sold. Donkeys were raised to help with heavy farm work and dogs kept on hand for traditional foxhunts which entertained Washington and his many guests.
Washington was an avid gardener and collected plants and seeds from all around the world. Fresh vegetables and fruits graced the dinner table and a beautiful array of flowers delighted visitors year round. The major crops produced by the farm were corn and wheat, and an onsite mill facilitated the production of cornmeal and flour.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the plantation was tended by slaves owned by Washington and his family. At the time of his death in 1799, there were over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. They toiled for long hours and endured grim living conditions, including harsh punishments for theft and other wrongdoings. Washington’s feelings on slavery appear to have been mixed and often contradictory, and in his will he left instructions for the emancipation of his slaves upon Martha’s death. He is the only Founding Father to have done so.
George and Martha Washington are buried at Mount Vernon, along with 28 members of their extended family. The “new” red-brick tomb was built in the 1830s to replace a much older deteriorating structure.
Many famous world leaders and dignitaries have visited the tomb of America’s first president, including the Marquis de Lafayette, King George VI, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong May-ling. Over one million tourists pass through Mount Vernon’s gates annually, so you are sure to be in good company.
Have you been to Mount Vernon?