At Mount Vernon, some say, George Washington's heartbeat can still be heard.
In his 67 years, he survived a battle where "arrows flew around me like a covey of birds, but no one touched me"; lived though horses were shot out from under him; suffered a heartbreak or two and many ailments; led the American Revolutionary forces; and served eight years as president of the new United States.
Tomorrow, on the 200th anniversary of his death, bells will ring and flags will flutter at half-staff. Many will commemorate his passing by visiting the residence that he designed. They are encouraged to wear the black arm bands provided and to follow the path of the funeral procession to his original tomb.
In his will, Washington wrote that "it is my express desire that my corpse may be interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration." Yet this Saturday, the anniversary of his funeral, there will be eulogies, a full-scale reenactment of his funeral procession, a narration of the event, historically attired mourners, colonial cavalry and infantry, cannons, music and a riderless white horse.
In a renovated museum on the grounds, 100 treasures, including Washington's letters and books and Martha Washington's jewelry, now are on view. An additional 200 objects from the Washingtons' time will return to their places in the Mount Vernon home.
The most important artifact on exhibit is George Washington's Last Will and Testament, usually guarded at the Fairfax County Circuit Court but lent to Mount Vernon for the bicentennial.
The will was written on custom-made paper, with all except one page signed. "In the name of God amen," he wrote in leaving to "my dearly beloved wife Martha," the whole of his estate--with a few notable exceptions.
Washington over the years had become much concerned by what was called "the peculiar institution." He believed slavery should be abolished gradually. "Not only do I pray for it, on the score of human dignity," he once wrote, "I can clearly foresee that nothing but rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union."
His will specified that after the death of Martha, "it is my will and desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom." He decided that immediate emancipation, "tho' earnestly wished by me," would create "insuperable difficulties" because he could not also free the slaves whom Martha inherited (in trust for their children) from her first husband, despite "their intermixture by Marriages."
In addition, the will states, "here may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably cloathed & fed by my heirs while they live--and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of 25 years. . . . The Negroes thus bound, are, by their Masters and Mistresses to be taught to read and write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation."
Washington also directed his executors "to see that this clause respecting slaves and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested."
For "my mulatto man William, calling himself William Lee," Washington made special provision. "I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it on account of the accidents which have befallen him which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment to remain in the situation he now is . . . in any case whatsoever, I allow him an annuity of 30 dollars during his natural life, which shall be independent of the victuals and cloath & fed he has been accustomed to receive . . . & this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachments to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War."
In the last pages, he worried about estate improvements he had not made. He wrote, "The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of Brick, and upon a larger Scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure." The tomb was finally finished in 1831.
For years, Washington yearned, as he often said, to go home to Mount Vernon and sit under his own fig tree. His wish came true for a brief two years.
His estate was saved by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, founded in 1853, the oldest nonprofit national preservation organization in the country. The gates are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through February. "Washington Is No More," a 10-minute movie depicting his final moments, is shown daily. Call 703-780-2000 for information about admission fees and new programs.
CAPTION: The first president, as rendered by Charles Willson Peale. He died 200 years ago tomorrow.