Washington the Liberator

George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the husband-and-wife collaboration of Robert and Lee Dalzell, is a lovely book. It ought to be widely read and generally praised, but it may not be, inasmuch as its title—the only title it could possibly have—unavoidably sends all the wrong signals. It looks like a specialized monograph well outside the mainstream of general interest, a book about a house. But this is deceptive; it’s a great deal more, and is as much about the builder, the foremost Founding Father, as about his house. There are insights in it about the character of George Washington that don’t emerge from the rest of the Washington literature, vast as the corpus is, because they aren’t to be perceived except with refer-ence to a specific place from which Washington was absent for long periods on those occasions which established his primary claim on the nation’s memory.

Mount Vernon was nevertheless the place he professed to value above all the world’s honors. Its sole planner and architect was himself; he shared that role with no one: twice he undertook a major rebuilding, beginning with the one-and-a-half-story structure he inherited from his brother Lawrence in 1754, each time doubling the house’s size. In all the forty-five years between then and his death in 1799, there was never a time when he was not at work on the house and the five outlying farms, mostly from a distance.

During those same years he was of course also occupied with such things as military service in the French and Indian War, membership in the Continental Congress, commanding the Continental Army throughout the Revolution, presiding at the Constitutional Convention, and serving two terms as president of the United States. Yet those duties, arduous and exhausting as they were, never crowded out the attention he gave to the minutely detailed instructions regularly transmitted to his managers and overseers at Mount Vernon about materials and labor and the way he wanted them used. We thus have an exceptionally full record of what went on in Washington’s mind regarding these and many related matters, as well as evidence of how the vision of Mount Vernon, and his plans for it, served him as a calming recourse in the most trying hours of his public life.

The progress of three generations of Washingtons eventuated, somewhat erratically, in the form Mount Vernon would take by the time George Washington came into possession of it at the age of twenty-two. John Washington, the first of them, had come to Virginia in 1657, a time when the principal concern of incoming settlers, that of acquiring tracts of land as extensive as possible, was still a preoccupation that far eclipsed whatever thought they may have given to the kind of houses they would erect there. It would be another hundred years before a limited number of families whose undertakings had survived the protracted depression in tobacco prices that began in the 1690s would coalesce as a gentry class and acquire a virtual…

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