When George Washington designed Mount Vernon, he strategically placed walls, gardens and rows of trees to keep visitors from encountering the enslaved people who toiled behind the scenes to support his luxurious lifestyle. On two recent visits to the historic plantation, I found that approach is, unfortunately, still alive today. During the mansion tour and in the exhibits, slavery is barely mentioned. It wasn’t until I ferreted out a special exhibit and paid $10 extra for the “Enslaved People of Mount Vernon” tour — open to a maximum of only 50 people a day — that I got a full picture of what life was like on the estate.
On my first visit to Mount Vernon, I followed the route that most tourists seemed to take, via outdoor pathways to the president’s mansion. Along the way, I perused signs trumpeting Washington’s lesser-known accomplishments — as an architect, an entrepreneur and an experimental farmer. I’m sure he was a talented guy, but it was all a bit much — especially when we got to an outhouse that was also presented as evidence of his genius. “The attractive design exemplifies Washington’s interest in architecture,” a placard reads. (Sadly, I couldn’t find any explanation for why the privy had three toilet seats with no partitions between them, so I was left to speculate that our famously diligent first president liked to talk business while doing his business.)
There was a long line to get into the mansion, so I had plenty of time to admire Washington’s rolling lawn. “There’s no way he could have kept it looking this good, in a world before lawn mowers,” I said to a guide. “They did have lawn mowers,” she replied. “They were called goats.”
On my second trip to Mount Vernon, I got a much more convincing explanation. “This is imported grass from England, and it took the work of many slaves to keep it trimmed and to give it the rolling look of an English country estate,” explained the guide leading the slavery tour. Skilled gardeners cut the grass by hand with a scythe, and rolled the lawn at night to keep it flat, she said.
Seeing George Washington’s beautifully preserved mansion was a highlight of both my trips to Mount Vernon. “It’s all here, Washington’s blueprint for the country,” a tour guide in the front parlor said, after pointing out the decorative pattern of wheat sheaths pressed into the room’s plaster ceiling. Washington believed that America’s future lay not in tobacco, but in becoming the breadbasket for the world, he explained.
On the slavery tour, I got a fuller — and more interesting — picture of the motivation behind Washington’s grain obsession. “He begins to understand that tobacco is not sustainable because it depletes the soil, and … when that’s gone, what does the [British] empire really need from America?” she asked.
Washington moved toward producing a variety of crops and processing them into value-added goods, such as whiskey and flour. These activities required a more skilled workforce, which led him to begin to see enslaved workers as smart, competent human beings, our guide said. And as slaves became more skilled, they gained more leverage to demand better working conditions, she added. “You don’t get better performance out of [skilled tradesman] by terror, by whipping. You get better performance by adding or removing privileges,” she said.
This nuanced discussion of early America’s economics attracted the interest of several passersby. Unfortunately, our guide sent them all on their way. “This is a private tour,” she said.
After my mansion and slavery tours, I spent a long time wandering Mount Vernon’s vast grounds and learning about farming, blacksmithing, aquaculture and livestock on Washington’s estate. I’m betting these activities all involved slave labor, yet none of the re-enactors I chatted with mentioned enslaved workers. I did find my way to a slave cabin, but there was very little information about the people who might have lived there. For that, I had to seek out a temporary exhibit in Mount Vernon’s museum and education center, a building that most tourists don’t find till the very end of their long trip.
“Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” does a wonderful job reconstructing the experiences of people who left little by way of written records — people like Ona Judge, a skilled seamstress who escaped a relatively comfortable life in the Washington household to live as a fugitive in New Hampshire. I had the place to myself because most of my fellow tourists opted to visit a permanent exhibit called “Discovering the Real George Washington” instead.
I can hardly blame them. Unlike the somber slavery exhibit, the “Real George Washington” section is quite lively. The exhibit kicks off with an introductory video where forensic scientists attempt to answer a question that seems, largely, to amount to: Was our first president hot or not? You can decide for yourself as you transit a series of rooms that showcase life-size mannequins of Washington as a young surveyor, a dashing soldier and America’s first president. The exhibit also includes an exciting “4D” movie about Washington’s heroics during the Revolutionary War (cannon fire rattles the floor and “snow” falls from the ceiling), a replica of his family pew, and a movie in which Martha Washington (as voiced by Glenn Close) talks about her idyllic marriage.
In that exhibit, I did find a small section addressing slavery, but more space is devoted to George Washington’s teeth. It takes pains to dispel the myth that his dentures were made of wood, but fails to mention that they, most likely, contained healthy teeth extracted from the mouths of slaves.
This is just one place where Mount Vernon could integrate the nightmarish reality of slavery into its main exhibits. Until that happens, many of Mount Vernon’s roughly 1 million annual visitors probably come away with an impression of the estate as a luxurious, bucolic place where our foremost founding father spent his golden years. That’s no doubt true, but it’s also a Southern plantation where hundreds of people lived in servitude and abject poverty, and their stories deserve to be heard, too.
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