With James Rees
Mount Vernon Executive Director
Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2002; 11 a.m. EST
On April 30, 1789 George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States. As former commander of the Continental army, Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress and president of the Constitutional Convention it is no surprise that Washington was unanimously elected to be the first president of the fledgling country.
James Rees has been with Mount Vernon since 1983, serving as Executive Director since 1994. He is co-author of "George Washington's Mount Vernon" and author of the catalogue for the traveling exhibition, "Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed."
Mr. Rees was online to discuss Washington, his impact on our nation and his life in general.
This is the first of a monthly online discussion series focusing on each of the U.S. Presidents.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Who were Washington's political adversaries, if he had any. We think so highly of him now, but did he have any political enemies?
James Rees: Washington tried hard to remain "above politics," but he definitely believed in a strong central government. Those who believed in strong states' rights -- including Thomas Jefferson and George Mason -- were often on the opposite side. But Washington had few real enemies, because he was supported so strongly by the people at large, that most politicians needed to be careful with their criticisms of him.
Thanks for taking my question.
1. What kind of public comments did George Washington make during the Adams administration?
2. Do you think that George Washington could have won a third term as president?
James Rees: Officially, Washington did not say much after his two terms in office, although we know he subscribed to at least ten newspapers, and therefore kept up with current events. He was not a close friend of John Adams, so they were not in frequent communication. As far as a third term, I think George Washington would have easily won. His reputation among the people was incredibly strong.
Who would have been our first President under the Constitution if Washington had not wanted the job?
James Rees: John Adams received the second highest number of votes, which put him into the office of Vice President.
How old was Washington when he had to resort to false teeth?
James Rees: He was 27 years old when he began to lose his teeth. He attributed it to the habit of cracking walnuts with his teeth.
I remember from history class that Washington was suffering from some sort of illness that made him stop a lot on his way through towns. What was his illness?
James Rees: As President, George Washington was seriously ill twice. Details of those illnesses, however, are not specifically documented.
As unbelievable as this question may seem to those watching this live discussion, it is my understanding that upon George Washington's death one of his very close friends actually removed a small portion of one of his fingers approximately 1/2" in length; something I am told was not too unusual back in the 18th century. Now, this small ligature was perfectly preserved and stayed within the family of the friend for nearly 200 years. A Maryland historical collector now purports to own the ligature. I know this because I have personally seen the "item." I am also told, however, that Mt. Vernon is quite sensitive about discussing this topic, for obvious and understandable reasons. Caretakers at the mansion are aware of the controversy, at least those I have asked, but few seem to have personal knowledge of whether it is true or not. Are you willing or able to confirm or deny the accuracy of these claims?
James Rees: Quite honestly, I have never heard about Washington's missing finger, although others on our staff may be more familiar with this rumor. Washington was buried in the "Old Tomb" on December 18, 1799, and his body was moved in 1832 to the larger new tomb. There are stories that imply that several people viewed the body during the transfer, but I am not aware that a portion of the finger was removed. I would like to know more about the collector who apparently owns the finger in question, to see if he or she has some form of documentation to support the story. Can you put me in touch?
The story of George Washington and the cherry tree is a myth. Who started the myth? Was there some basis for the myth, i.e. was George Washington generally known for his truthfulness? Or is this an image that was created long after his life?
James Rees: The cherry tree story was created by a wonderful gentleman named Parson Weems, who wrote an incredibly popular book about Washington's honesty and character in the early 19th century, not long after Washington's death. The book was reprinted some 20 times, so the rumor spread quickly. Washington's honesty was absolutely legendary, so the theme of the story is very appropriate.
Any good ghost stories that you tell us about Washington?
James Rees: There are not a lot of ghost stories related to Mount Vernon. But several of our guides swear that they have seen ghostly images in Washington's Mansion. On a few occasions, furniture seems to have moved mysteriously in the locked and secure home. We know this because the furniture comes into contact with our "electric eye," causing a false security alarm. We don't seem to have any surviving stories that refer to ghosts during the lifetime of George Washington.
What did Washington do after he left the presidency?
James Rees: George Washington had long looked forward to retirement from public office. Upon returning to Mount Vernon, he took up the life of a farmer; agriculture was his personal passion. Each day he rode to his five farms and oversaw the work being done. Additionally, his fame had grown internationally and the Washingtons welcomed hundreds of guests to Mount Vernon. In one year alone, over 670 overnight guests visited Mount Vernon. Washington wrote to a friend they came "out of respect" but "would not curiosity be a better word." His long-awaited retirement lasted only a short time. He died on December 14, 1799.
George Washington wrote an extremely friendly letter to a synagogue in Newport, R.I. stressing that American Jews would always enjoy full rights as citizens.
What were the circumstances under which George Washington wrote that letter?
James Rees: The letter you are referring to was written to the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, which still exists today. Washington was a strong advocate of religious freedom, and he supported the existence of this very early synagogue. Perhaps the most famous line in his letter refers to a government which "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Washington wrote the letter "to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, R.I.," after visiting Newport in August 1790. Washington's letter was written in response to an equally moving letter penned by Moses Seixas, Warden of Touro Synagogue.
In "Burr," Gore Vidal painted a highly unflattering portrait of our first president; a bumbling military tactician with a less than awe-inspiring intellect. Does the truth lie somewhere between this and our traditional deified view of the man?
Also, I often wonder how Washington's "Farewell Address" would be different if he had to make it today. The complete aversion to "foreign entanglements" doesn't seem practical anymore.
James Rees: I believe that Gore Vidal was extremely hard on Washington, and that some of his theories are not supported by a great deal of documentation. Most scholars believe that Washington was absolutely indispensable as commander in chief, despite the fact that his military training was by no means extensive. He wasn't a great tactician, perhaps, but he was by no means bumbling! He was a remarkable leader and his personal courage inspired his men. Washington's intellect may not have been on a par with some of the other Founding Fathers, like Jefferson, but he was smart and had terrific common sense. He seldom made the same mistake twice. But most importantly, when the Founding Fathers were faced with the most difficult challenges they always turned to Washington -- he was the leader of leaders, so to speak. I trust their opinions far more than those of a modern author, particularly one who is known for sensationalizing history.
Could you explain how and why the key to the Bastille came to reside in Mount Vernon? I was amazed to see it there on a recent trip. Thank you.
James Rees: The key was a treasured possession of George Washington, sent to him in 1790 by the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette had served as an aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and the two developed a strong relationship. Many close to Washington considered the young Frenchman almost in the capacity of an adopted son. Lafayette later was the engineer who oversaw the destruction of the infamous French prison, the Bastille. He sent the key to Washington with a note: "It is a tribute which I owe as a son to my adoptive father--as an aide-de-camp to my general -- as a missionary of liberty to its patriarch." The key in effect symbolizes Washington's stature as a symbol of liberty and freedom.
I remember hearing that Washington was almost deified in his lifetime by Americans. Is this true?
James Rees: Washington was clearly the most respected man of his age, and even before his death, his image was being applied to all sorts of objects -- some good, some bad. But Washington himself tried to keep the position of the president as "human" as possible, to avoid the appearance of royalty. People admired Washington for all the right reasons, and he has always been a very positive role model for young Americans. His honesty, character, and good judgment were undeniable, and as he himself said, he could "never resist the call of his country."
What was life like for Washington at Mount Vernon? What was his average day like?
James Rees: Washington once wrote he would rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two around him than to be with all the dignitaries of Europe. He followed a fairly standard routine while home at Mount Vernon. His step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, wrote that the General arose early each morning between 5-5:30 and went down to his study where he dressed for the day. He would engage in reading or correspondence until 7:00, when he ate his breakfast -- "three hoecakes swimming in honey and butter." After breakfast Washington routinely rode to his farms to see progress of work and to consult with his overseers. He returned home at 3:00 for dinner and to meet with guests. After dinner he spent time entertaining his company and then would often retire to his private study to answer or write letters. In the course of his life, Washington wrote over 45,000 letters.
Thanks for taking my question.
One thing that modern historians do is cast doubt about the moral integrity of the founding fathers, including George Washington.
Is there any evidence that George was unfaithful?
James Rees: We'll never know for sure, of course, but there is no documentation whatsoever that George Washington was ever unfaithful to his wife. Washington's reputation was incredibly important to him, so he worked diligently to maintain extremely high morals. And I believe he was very much in love with his wife. Their relationship seemed to grow stronger as they grew old together.
What was Washington's youth like? Was he born into privilege?
James Rees: I would say that Washington's family was "upper middle-class," but by no means wealthy. Washington's father died when he was eleven, and most of the family wealth went to his older half-brother, Lawrence. Washington would have liked to have attended a university (probably in England), but his mother and siblings needed his surveyor's income to help support the family. Washington did become wealthier and more privileged when he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a very rich widow, at the age of 27. We know little about Washington's youth, but it was probably pretty typical for the period. As a young man, he was extremely athletic and loved the great outdoors. He was tall, had red hair, and overall, he was a pretty dashing young man.
When did Washington decide to take up arms against the British - his former employer? I can only imagine that such a decision was not taken lightly and that letters and/or diary entries of his thoughts of the Crown would be around. Am I wrong?
James Rees: You are correct. Washington did not change his sentiments about the British overnight. In fact, after the French and Indian War, he hoped to be elevated to an officer's position in the regular British army. When British leaders, who were clearly prejudiced against the colonists, refused this promotion, Washington was furious and resigned his military post to begin a career in farming. His feelings against the British continued to fall apart because of his dealings with somewhat shady British merchants. Like many others, he was frustrated with British taxes. But most of all, I think Washington became a revolutionary because he truly believed that people should govern themselves. Washington's writings reveal some of this, but frankly, Washington was truly a man of action. Once he decided to be a rebel, he gave the effort 100 percent of his energy and determination, and in my opinion, he was the indispensable man of the Revolutionary War.
How did George Washington and Martha come to know one-another? How was their relationship?
James Rees: Washington met Martha Dandridge Custis through mutual friends. He was in Williamsburg, on leave during the French and Indian War, where he served as commander of the Virginia forces. Martha Custis was a young widow with two small children. According to all accounts the couple hit it off immediately, and on January 6, 1759, after Washington had resigned his commission, they were married. Details of their life together were ensured privacy by Mrs. Washington who burned their private correspondence before her death. Only two letters survive -- both dating to the period of the Revolutionary War. Both letters reflect a touching love and friendship. "... I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home, than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years." (GW to MW in 1775)
How accessible was Washington? Could one just walk up to his door and talk with him?
James Rees: George Washington was known as a generous host who once referred to his home as a well resorted tavern where no one traveling from south to north or north to south did not stop. In the tradition of his time, hospitality was generously offered to travelers. Mount Vernon in one year alone hosted almost 700 overnight guests. Those known to the Washingtons were arriving with a letter of introduction and would have been provided with a room in the house and dined with the family. Others unknown to the General might have been offered lodging in the servants' hall and most definitely would have been offered a meal. Those who wish to walk up and talk with the General most likely would have had great success in the subject were farming -- one topic George Washington loved to discuss.
I appreciate that it's usually a dicey proposition to engage in "what-ifs," but since this event happened within a couple of years after Washington's death, I thought it would be worth asking: what would he have thought about the Louisiana Purchase? A heck of a deal for the new country? Or too constitutionally controversial? In other words, would Washington had been as receptive to a similar territorial offer given during his own presidency? Thanks for reading.
James Rees: George Washington had several goals for the nation during his presidency. Among those was opening western lands for American agriculture. He most likely would have viewed the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory as a strong impetus to further American interests and a valuable expansion of agricultural land and natural resources.
Falls Church, Va.:
Forgive this rather morbid question but was George Washington's body embalmed? If so, has it ever been photographed?
James Rees: It is unlikely that Washington's body was embalmed to any great degree, because his body never left the Mount Vernon estate. He was placed in the old family vault on December 18, 1799, and his body was moved to a new family vault in 1832. His sarcophagus has not been opened since. Since both of these dates were before photography was popularized in American, it is very doubtful that his body has ever been photographed.
James Rees: Tell us a little about Washington's sensitivity or 'insensitivity' to the slavery issue? Or a little of his childhood relationship to his mother and father maybe? Thank you.
James Rees: Almost Washington's entire life was impacted by the institution of slavery. He inherited his first slaves when he was eleven, and finally freed his slaves in his will -- the only one of nine slaveholding presidents to do so. Washington changed his feelings about slavery for many reasons. During the war, he met northern farmers who made money without slavery. Close and respectable friends like Lafayette were strong abolitionists. Washington also felt that slaves had little incentive to work hard, so often they did not -- in other words, the entire institution did not seem to support the concept of a free enterprise system. And I think he truly believed that the tenets of our new government and the institution of slavery contradicted each other. So why, as president, did Washington fail to eliminate slavery? Most scholars feel he correctly surmised that the issue would tear apart our new nation, and that our brand new democracy would collapse. Probably he was correct, but today, Washington's reputation would be even more sterling if he had at least tried to address the subject as president.
Mt. Vernon was restored and is owned by the Mt. Vernon Ladies' Association, not the National Parks Service. What sort of people are members of the association? Has its membership changed much through time? What sort of activities do they engage in other than the administration of Mt. Vernon?
James Rees: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association was founded in 1853 to raise the funds (a whopping $200,000!) to purchase Mount Vernon from Washington's descendants. They took control of the property in 1858 and almost immediately opened the property to the public. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is the oldest national preservation group in America, and one of the oldest national women's organizations. The Association is really a modern board of between 25-30 women, each from a different state. They meet twice a year, in the spring and the fall, for almost a week, to make important decisions about Mount Vernon's future. Most members bring with them strong experience on other boards, and a true sense of dedication to the cause. Most board members also help us to raise funds from the private sector, because Mount Vernon does not receive government funds. Our board is a small but dedicated group of women!
New York, N.Y.:
Did George Washington have biological
relatives who survived him, and are there
direct descendants of the nation's first
president alive today?
James Rees: Washington had 4 brothers and sisters who had children. Although there are no direct descendants of George Washington, who never fathered children, there are many collateral descendants related to Washington through his brothers, John, Samuel, and Charles, and his sister Betty.
Fairfax County, Va.:
Concerning his time in Valley Forge
1. What writings of his exist today that speaks of his hopes and concerns for the young nation in its (then) darkest hour? It would interesting reading in light of 9-11.
2. Is it true that he had dream then in which he foresaw the Civil War, or is that another myth?
3. How bad was it really at Valley Forge during that winter?
James Rees: Washington wrote passionately about his hopes for his nation. Three of these documents, his first Inaugural Address, his Farewell Address, and his Circular to State Governors, offer profound insight into Washington's vision. It is difficult to say whether George Washington even foresaw the Civil War. He revealed that the issue of slavery had the potential to tear the young nation apart -- which is why he hesitated to take a public stand as president, although he advocated the gradual abolition of slavery through legislative measures. The events at Valley Forge were, indeed, a difficult time for the American army. In addition to weather, the Army faced a constant shortage of food, medicine, clothing and shelter, leading to a low morale among the troops.
New York, N.Y.:
Good morning, Mr. Rees.
In his recent book Founding Brothers, James Ellis, credits Washington's strategy of non-engagement and "tactical retreat" during the war with Britain as being the key to the colonies' victory. In his own day, wasn't the strategy more controversial? Weren't there some in the Continental Congress who wondered what the blazes Washington was doing? Is Ellis right that Washington's brilliant "insight" was to simply hold the Continental Army together until the British gave in, or does it just look like a plan, given that the French infusion of cash and arms sped the war to a complementary conclusion?
James Rees: You're very much on target. Washington was always being second-guessed by certain elements of the Congress, and at one point, a couple of his officers (most notably General Thomas Conway) were disloyal to Washington. They were working behind-the-scenes with some congressmen to remove Washington as commander-in-chief. Fortunately, Washington found out and nipped the controversy in the bud. Frankly, I think Dr. Ellis' book is a brilliant description of Washington's military strategy and talents -- I wish I had written it myself! I think Washington's victory was clearly a result of a solid plan, which remained somewhat flexible based on circumstances, in connection with the indispensable assistance of the French. And finally, as Washington would say, give credit to "Divine Providence."
Silver Spring, Md.:
It seems like Washington has been getting a whole lot of press lately, with the tour of his portrait around the country and the parade yesterday and everything.
Is this unusual, or is it par for the course this time of year?
James Rees: The traveling portrait is certainly causing an unusual amount of good coverage of Washington. But truthfully, the attention he receives now is far less than he did just 30 years ago -- and that's a shame. George Washington's Birthday should never have been renamed as President's Day, which implies that all presidents have been worthy of praise. Washington receives very little coverage in today's textbooks, and his portrait no longer hangs in most classrooms. So even though it seems that Washington is in the spotlight today, Americans really have very little exposure to the real character and personality of this greatest of all American heroes.
Washington's final illness -- is it reasonable to say that even 10 to 15 years later, medical knowledge had advanced enough a doctor would have been able to save Washington's life?
James Rees: In my opinion, 10 or 15 years of additional medical knowledge may not have saved Washington's life. It is true that the use of a tracheotomy may have prolonged Washington's life, and this practice became more popular soon after Washington's death. But his biggest problem was a severe, quickly-spreading infection, which would have been hard to prevent even years after Washington's death. Today, any number of antibiotics would do the trick.
For someone interested in learning about Washington's life and mind, what do you consider to be the best books on him?
James Rees: My favorite Washington books are George Washington, by James Flexner; George Washington: Man and Monument, by Marcus Cunliffe; Founding Father, by Richard Brookhiser; and Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith. I am also a great fan of Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers.
From what you know of Mr. Washington and his contemporaries, do you think they would be surprised that America has survived more or less in the form they envisioned for it to the 21st century?
James Rees: I think Washington would have been the least surprised, because he had a very big and bold vision for America's future. He felt we had tremendous human and natural resources. He understood that our new system of government would encourage a free enterprise system, and in turn, that would support rapid growth and expansion. And I think he believed that a government for and by the people was a government which could endure almost any crisis. In his heart, he believed in America, and trusted the people themselves.
It strikes me that Washington is overlooked by the historians because he didn't leave a written record of the magnitude of Jefferson/Lincoln. True?
James Rees: Washington was a remarkable writer -- he wrote some 40,000 letters. His collected writings, being assembled now at the University of Virginia, will stretch to some 90 volumes. But Washington wrote to communicate, not to impress, like most modern politicians. In my opinion, all history from the 18th century is harder to grasp because there are no photographs, and we are a very visual society. Washington has gotten a little more attention from scholars in recent years, and we have heard that Robert Redford is planning to create a movie featuring Washington's military career. So hopefully, both scholars and everyday Americans will have more exposure to this remarkable hero.
James Rees: We know very little about Washington's childhood. His father died when he was just eleven, and as the oldest of five children, his mother depended upon him to support the family. That's one reason he didn't go to college, but rather became a surveyor (with a good salary) at age 16. Interestingly, George and his mother seemed to have had a rather distant and strained relationship -- it's my feeling that both had strong and controlling personalities, which often clashed. But I think Washington probably inherited a number of traits from his mother, so we should be grateful to her for raising such a talented, courageous and honest son.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the
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