Monday, July 26, 2010
George Washington and the Cult of Personality at Mount Vernon
In a 1790 letter to David Stuart, George Washington wrote, “I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe.” After touring this beautiful place a few weeks ago, I can certainly understand the future president’s sentiment. Set along the Potomac River and featuring a long, grassy mall in front of the main house, it resembles a miniature Versailles. According to the Mount Vernon Museum website, “When George Washington lived here, Mount Vernon was an 8,000-acre plantation divided into five farms. Each farm was a complete unit, with its own overseers, work force of slaves, livestock, equipment, and buildings.”
The museum and education center at Mount Vernon offers all kinds of interactive features, from short films about Washington’s life and career to typical museum exhibits. I expected the usual “cult of personality” that permeates school textbooks to exist here, and I wasn’t disappointed. This cult is the same type of phenomena that we saw most recently in the museums of the old Soviet Union. The leader is perceived as the paragon of virtue; he is summoned by the heavens to guide the nation through trying times; he possesses the wisdom to understand what the “people” need and how their needs are to be served; and, finally, any so-called character defects are not really defects at all, but merely limits placed upon the leader by retrograde cultural realities of the times within which they lived (read: Washington and slavery). I imagined walking through the museum and substituting the images of Vladimir Lenin for Washington. Certainly the Soviet people put the same faith in Lenin that the Americans put in Washington, with the same postmortem treatment of both men as saintly “fathers” of their respective nations.
Whether the British sent their most competent generals to fight the Americans is beside the point in the museum’s version of the American Revolution. Washington was a natural military leader and was the architect of the defeat of Britain, “THE GREATEST MILITARY POWER IN THE WORLD!” according the short video on the Revolutionary War I watched with my wife and son. Important questions swirled in my brain: Did the British really want to pay the cost of defending the colonies, when the colonists made it clear that they wouldn’t pay their fair share in taxes to help defend the frontier? Was the TEA Party responsible for American resistance to the Stamp Act and other mean-spirited British attempts to raise taxes on freedom-loving Americans? (Sorry, wrong century. I forgot that the anti-tax sentiment in this country predates the first volleys at Lexington and Concord). As an unabashed Francophile, I was glad to see that the video acknowledged the French role in the final defeat of the British at Yorktown. No doubt the image of Louis XVI in the dining room of the main house at Mount Vernon and the close relationship between Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette (Lafayette did name his son George Washington Lafayette) attest to the deep involvement of the French in the struggle against Britain.
I appreciated the earnestness of the volunteer and paid interpreters who seem to have dedicated their lives to teaching visitors about Washington while at the same time guarding against any attempts to reveal the human side of the man. One interpreter told me that the Washingtons loved to throw parties and that anyone could knock on the door and would be welcomed with open arms. Clearly this person didn’t read the impressive research done by historians on the social deference required by, and given to, prominent Virginians like Washington by those of inferior social rank. I wondered what he would have thought of me and my wife, great grandchildren of Italian, Irish, Swedish and Newfoundland immigrants (and, most distressing, Catholic!), tramping through his house with our t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, wondering aloud where scenes from “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” were filmed (not inside the main house, much to George’s relief, I would guess). I don’t think the President would have opened the door if we came knocking in the heyday of Mount Vernon unless, perhaps, we offered our services as servants.
I was troubled by the museum’s exhibits on slavery. They offer a weak attempt to portray Washington as torn between his support for this immoral social, economic and cultural institution and the most important themes of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution--the belief in liberty and that all men are created equal (the issue of whether Martha was to be included was not addressed in the exhibits, as far as I can tell, but it was made known to me by an interpreter that she was quite the socialite). The fact of the matter is this: when Washington took possession of Mount Vernon, fifty slaves worked the land; when he died, over three hundred were working the plantation. I should note that Washington, to his credit, did make it known in his will that his slaves would be freed upon his death. However, there is no denying the fact that the wealth produced by Mount Vernon and enjoyed by Washington was done on the backs of slaves.
The most moving part of the visit to Mount Vernon was our tour of the area where the unmarked graves of the slaves were located. It presents a stark contrast with the elegant mausoleum that houses the remains of Washington and his wife. The real story of the tragedy and triumph of American history can be found in this paradox: hardy slaves built this plantation into the prosperous, comfortable home that Washington cherished, while Washington himself fought a war to defend political principles that would one day be used to end human bondage in the United States. I was saddened to think that a wonderful opportunity was being lost. Why not bring this fact to the attention of visitors, who would gain a new perspective on Washington as a human being--a talented, social climbing, slave-owning, ambitious soldier and politician, and, all the same, dedicated to the ideals that animate the Constitution. Then Americans would appreciate the complexity of their history and the arduous road this nation has travelled since his death in 1799.