Mourning Becomes Mount Vernon
The Washington Post, 10 February 1999«back | home
By Michael Farquhar
Mount Vernon was shrouded in sadness 200 years ago. It seemed unthinkable
then that the great hero who had led a fledgling nation through war and
independence against all manner of adversity was quietly passing away.
But George Washington was mortal, after all, succumbing at age 67 to
what then was called "quinsy," a severe infection of the throat now routinely
treated with penicillin.
His final hours on Dec. 14, 1799, were faithfully and vividly recorded
by his secretary, Tobias Lear:
"All day apprehension had the better of hope. About the time the clock
struck 10, I saw that the General wished to speak and leaned close in
an effort to catch what the broken voice was trying to say. At length
the words came: 'I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not
let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.'
"I nodded, unable to speak, but Washington looked at me directly and
said, 'Do you understand me?' I answered, 'Yes, sir.' And George Washington
spoke once more: 'Tis well.'
"Martha kept her vigil near the foot of the bed. Doctor Craik had returned
to his chair by the fire. Christopher stood nearby and several other servants
were gathered at the door. A little after 10, his breathing became much
easier and the General lay quietly. I still held his hand.
"Then unexpectedly Washington withdrew it to feel his own pulse. There
was a change in his countenance. On the instant, I spoke to Doctor Craik,
who stepped to the bedside.
"In a moment Washington's fingers had made their last count; his hand
slipped away from his wrist. I took it again and clasped it to his breast.
Doctor Craik laid his hand gently over Washington's eyes. There was not
a struggle or a sigh. Almost as if he realized that everything now was
in readiness for his last command, George Washington withdrew in the presence
Death is in the air again at Mount Vernon as the historical site embarks
on a year-long bicentennial observance of that dramatic event in the nation's
history. The estate's greenhouse has been transformed into a funereal
"mood theater," where visitors can see a high-tech, multimedia presentation
titled "Washington Is No More," inspired in part by Lear's account.
Guided tours focusing on Washington's death are being offered daily
throughout the year, retracing the funeral procession and including a
peek into his original tomb. Washington's body was moved to its current
resting spot several yards away 32 years after he died.
On Dec. 18, the anniversary of the funeral, the entire ceremony will
be recreated in a solemn, narrated pageant. A procession of historically
costumed mourners -- along with colonial infantry, cavalry and a riderless
horse -- will follow an authentically reconstructed coffin from the mansion
to the old tomb, where the Episcopalian and Masonic services performed
then will be recited again.
While such an emphasis on death may strike some as maudlin, minimizing
the occasion would be to deny history. Washington's passing was an epochal
event of the time, plunging the new nation into unprecedented grief as
it faced the coming century without the man who had shaped so much of
As Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, a statesman and Revolutionary War
hero, said so eloquently while the nation mourned, Washington was "first
in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
More than 700 public eulogies were voiced throughout the country. Many
towns commemorated the event with processions featuring empty coffins;
thousands of people wore black for months.
Congress immediately resolved to erect a fitting memorial in the capital
city, although, as explained in Horizon last month, this was just the
first of many plans that finally culminated in the current Washington
Monument on the National Mall.
The Alexandria Times and District of Columbia Advertiser noted two days
after Washington's funeral that "the stores were all closed and all business
suspended, as if each family had lost its father.
"From the time of his death to the time of his interment the bells continued
to toll, the shipping in the harbor wore their colors half-mast high,
and every public expression of grief was observed."
Ironically, the bicentennial observances of George Washington's death
are making Mount Vernon come alive as never before.
The mansion, normally rather formal and static in its displays, has
been redone to reflect better how the Washingtons actually lived there.
The temporary table that had been set on sawhorses in the large dining
room to accommodate extra guests, for example, will remain in place all
year, as if the president and his wife had just entertained. Even his
bed will stay unmade, just the way he left it.
More than 100 period artifacts and works of art, more than half of which
actually belonged to the Washingtons, have been borrowed or purchased
from institutions and individuals nationwide and brought to Mount Vernon,
making the estate much less like a museum and more like the place George
and Martha called home.
Beginning in April, "Celebration Nights" are scheduled every Friday
and Saturday through August, featuring live music and the rare opportunity
to visit Mount Vernon at night.
In October, the anniversary of the general's Revolutionary War victory
at Yorktown is to be celebrated with concerts, battle demonstrations and
authentic reenactments, Air Force flyovers and a ceremonial "changing
of the guard" at his tomb.
All of the activities and bicentennial commemorations, many scheduled
only for this year, begin next Monday on the day celebrated as Washington's
birthday. They promise to make a local landmark fresh and new, "even if
you've been to Mount Vernon five times or 50 times before," says Executive
Director James Rees.
African Americans Virtually Ran Washington's Estate
George Washington's death at Mount Vernon ultimately benefited African
American men and women enslaved there.
"Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the
Slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom," Washington
dictated in his will, the original of which is displayed in the newly
renovated Mount Vernon Museum.
Washington had been born into a society in which slave ownership was
a familiar fact of life for certain social classes. He was 11 years old
when he inherited 10 slaves from his father, and through the years he
purchased or acquired many more.
It wasn't until he began fighting for American freedom during the Revolutionary
War that he started to question the systematic bondage of human beings.
Raised to regard that as normal, he was so struck by contradictions he
faced in struggling against tyranny while trading in human lives that
he resolved never to buy or sell another slave.
But Washington didn't free them during his lifetime, nor did he take
significant steps as president to abolish the institution.
"I wish my soul that the legislature of this State could see a policy
of gradual abolition of slavery," Washington wrote in 1797. But two years
later, the year of his death, an inventory of 316 slaves was recorded
at Mount Vernon.
These African Americans virtually ran the estate. Many worked the 8,000-acre
plantation's five farms and grist mill, while others engaged in skilled
crafts such as carpentry, masonry and blacksmithing. Inside, most of the
cooks, butlers, personal valets and maids were slaves. Many died and were
buried at the estate.
Honoring these men and women during Black History Month, Mount Vernon
is offering guided walking tours focusing on slave life at the estate
every day this month at 10 and 11:30 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. Tours also are
scheduled four times daily in April through October.
Copious documentation and records have allowed guides to provide rich
detail and anecdotes about the slave community, its members' family lives,
diet, work and occasional resistance to the overseers.
It is known, for example, that daily slave rations included one quart
of cornmeal and five ounces of fish, either salted or pickled, with occasional
fresh meat. It also is known that two-thirds of the adult slaves at Mount
Vernon were married and that George Washington recognized such unions,
though the state of Virginia did not.
Each tour concludes with a wreath-laying ceremony at the slave burial
grounds, not far from Washington's tomb.
The slave graves are unmarked, and the number of people buried is unknown.
But two memorials honor them -- one placed in 1929 and the other, designed
by Howard University architecture students, in 1983.
On Saturdays and Sundays in February, at 11 a.m., and 12:30 and 2:30
p.m., Larry Earl, a professional interpreter of colonial slave life, is
presenting a program of African-American music, singing and storytelling
about slave families at Mount Vernon.
PLAN YOUR EXPEDITION
Mount Vernon is on the Potomac River at the southern end of the George
Washington Memorial Parkway 16 miles from the District.
Among the features on the 500-acre estate are mansion tours, two museums,
more than a dozen outbuildings, four gardens, a four-acre pioneer farm
site, guided nature trails, three gift shops, a snack bar and restaurant.
The estate is open at 9 a.m. every day, including holidays, in September
through March and 8 a.m. in April through August. It closes at 4 p.m.
November through February and at 5 p.m. all other times of the year.
Admission is $8 for adults, $7.50 for senior citizens and $4 for youngsters
6-11 when accompanied by an adult. Group rates are available. 703-780-2000.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company
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