As part of the Junior Fellows busy travel schedule, we embarked to Mount Vernon, situated in northern Virginia. This was the home of George Washington and is the most visited home in the United States. Originally set in the midst of 8,000 acres, the estate still covers much ground (50 acres) and offers beautiful views of the Potomac.
The mansion was first built in 1735 by Augustus Washington, father of the first president of the United States. George Washington inherited Mount Vernon in the 1750’s and expanded the one and half story home to a large three-story mansion.
Currently Mount Vernon appears as it looked in 1799, when George Washington died at the age of 67. The estate still bears the marks of a pioneer farm, containing a distillery, slave cabins, a sixteen-sided treading barn, and many other buildings.
Perhaps most stunning was the view of the Potomac River from the back porch.
Perhaps most interesting is that Washington built his closet on the first floor, even though his master bedroom was located on the second floor. Prudently, he chose to avoid waking Martha, who would sleep for another two hours after Washington awoke.
Perhaps most noteworthy about our tour is that David Gregory, news anchor of Meet the Press on NBC, was standing right behind us. Yes, this trip is full of surprises!
After a very chilly walk through the estate we arrived to the President’s tomb. Everyone paid their respect with silence while looking in on the tomb of President and Mrs. Washington.
But the estate, as it turns out, is only part of the story. Further down one of the estate’s many paths is the Donald Reynolds’ Education Center, which is a kind of Presidential Museum. Not only did we get to see many artifacts such as George Washington’s wooden dentures, but also sat in on a highly-recommended 4D film addressing the strategy used to win the Revolutionary War.
Taken in all, Mt. Vernon is a great reflection of the size (literally and figuratively) of our Founding Father, as well as his tastes and accomplishments.
After visiting Mt. Vernon, we traveled to the town of Charlottesville, Virginia to visit Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello.
The Exterior of Monticello has a classical revival look, with an eye for the symmetrical in designing his home. However, the design of the exterior does not follow the same as the interior. The home goes against everything a person would expect a slave plantation home would look like: where grand stair cases were the norm, Jefferson despised the idea of such a space hogger, so he installed a small and hidden staircase.
Relative to the other founding fathers, Jefferson was a well-traveled man. When he found a design in a different country, he would try incorporate the design into his beloved Monticello. For instance, he was fond of the bed-alcoves he found in Germany, and that is what we find in Monticello. He enjoyed the skylights in found in France, and there are thirteen such skylights in Monticello. The result was not only a cosmopolitan home, but also a home that, during Jefferson’s lifetime, was in a constant state of revision and construction, never fully complete.
Another fascinating part of the house is the underground tunnel linking different sections of the home. Connecting slave quarters, kitchens, horse stables, smoke houses, and wine cellars, the tunnel also served as a passage for the “servants” (slaves and paid staff) so they would not have to be seen inside the home.
The entrance to Monticello is noteworthy for eclectic style. World maps, busts of famous men (including his nemesis Alexander Hamilton), large fossils of the lower jawbones of the Prehistoric Mastodons, and Indian artifacts populate the entryway. Perhaps most interesting to me, however, was the mounted set of Elk Antlers, which were sent to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark on their Louisiana Purchase expedition.
The home, with its many interesting Jeffersonian inventions and large library, offered a great insight into the mind of Thomas Jefferson. It’s worth noting that Jefferson kept a very cluttered place. The entry, for example, was often filled with piles of things Jefferson found interesting.
Jefferson’s views on slavery are far more complicated than a blog can accommodate. He openly opposed slavery and wrote “all men are created equal” into the Declaration, even as he owned slaves and even as he fathered Sally Hemmings’ children.
Thinking of these contradictions brought me back to our time at the National Mall in Washington DC. The Mall’s newest Memorial is for Martin Luther King, who stands at the Tidal Basin, with his arms crossed and a stern look on his face. Across the Basin is the Jefferson Memorial, seemingly the object of MLK’s displeased glare.
Monticello, however, wasn’t the only interesting Jefferson structure we visited. We also saw the magnificent and relatively unknown Barboursville ruins. This structure was designed for James Barbour by Thomas Jefferson in 1814. It stood in apparent magnificence (judged by contemporary assessments and the remains) but burnt in 1884, leaving a ghostly shell that only hints at the original design. Although the house stands as merely a frame of the original edifice, the ancient historic feel to it was unprecedented in terms of the homes we had visited thus far. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing such a historic home.
Following the Barboursville Ruins, we were able to see three other presidential spots.
Orange County, Virginia hasn’t done a lot to preserve the legacy of one its own, Zachary Taylor. The ill-fated Whig President (he died 16 months after taking office) does, however, have a plaque at the corner of the Courthouse. It’s not much, but when you are in the land of Washington and Jefferson, a sixteen month president isn’t going to get a monument.
James Monroe & Andrew Johnson
We also saw the homes of James Monroe (Ashlawn-Highland, in Virginia) and Andrew Johnson (Greeneville, Tennessee). Monroe was the last of the founding fathers to be President, presiding over the so-called “Era of Good Feelings,” a period when there wasn’t much party conflict (on the surface, anyway) in the US political world. By Monroe’s presidency, the Federalists had largely died out, and the Whigs had yet to rise.
Johnson also has an interesting story in US History, one that fit in well for us. We had, of course, seen Lincoln’s home and Presidential Library, and we had also toured Mary Todd Lincoln’s home. Now, we got to see Lincoln’s Vice-President’s home. The City of Greenville is proud of Johnson, preserving his home, giving him a large statue, and featuring a replica of his birth home near the town square. Many people remember Johnson as one of only two impeached presidents (Clinton being the other), but Johnson is even more memorable in another respect: he is the only president to serve as a US Senator after leaving the White House.
And today was one of the most memorable for the Junior Fellows—four presidential homes, a presidential plaque, and the ruins of a home designed by a president. But even as we reflect on an amazing day, we look forward to tomorrow, when Sam Houston will be part of our theme!