American Sabbatical 67: 3/10/97

Mount Vernon


We are supposed to be sprinting SOUTH
to where spring begins before we start following the side trails, but too many of Peggy’s heroes left footprints around here, and we get distracted. Trying to keep Peggy down to one historic visit a day is like trying to keep the dogs out of the neighbors’ compost.

We could have spent a week in DC, and Peggy has the list to prove it: Herb’s portraits at the National Gallery and White House, the 17th century rooms at the State Department, the part of the Lincoln Memorial created with funds subscribed by freed slaves, the Holocaust Museum, Mary McCloud Bethune’s house.. not to mention the Smithsonian and all the galleries. But she decided on the Frederick Douglass House as the emblematic site for this hopscotch.

Seat of Power

The capitol’s black squirrels were skittering up and down the budding oaks as we repacked the Owl, and cut across the city to the Anacostia Bridge. On route we were diverted by the White House security barricades and got in a logjam by the Capitol steps.. automotive street theater. These marble photo-op backdrops are so ingrained in our consciousness that we can’t really see them, we go into recognition shock just as we do before GREAT ART in the flesh. It’s impossible to imagine them once standing stark and new on this wet meadow, a promise of power to be.

Douglass had a panoramic view of these promises from his hilltop in Anacostia, and we picked our way to his house through the disintegrating neighborhood on his side of the river. There are always a lot more pedestrians in black sections of town, clusters of men on the corners and in the parks, and driving through leaves a wake of mutual awareness. Fenced off, and rising out of the poverty, the Douglass House looks very grand, and Peggy was eager to take the tour, but they were booked solid with school groups. We hung around for a couple of hours, and Peggy tried to cajole the all-black guides into letting her tag along.. to no avail. And we got turned around trying to find our way out of Anacostia, and saw how the other half lives.

(Memo #55)

March 10 -Frederick Douglass - Cedar Hill

Who ? ex-slave, abolitionist lecturer and writer and public official

What ? national leader from 1830’s to 1890’s

Where? his home in Cedar Hill in Anacostia (SE Washington D.C.)

When? he lived there from the l870s to 1890s

How? by self-education and the help of abolitionists

Topics: Afro-American history

Cedar Hill

Minister to Haiti, abolitionist society lecturer, US Marshall, newspaper editor, author, women’s rights advocate, escaped slave, orator, national leader. Frederick Douglass was all of these. He counted among his friends Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Brown. He toured England and Ireland giving abolitionist speeches. He sheltered escaped slaves. He was in attendance at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. He shared his friend John Brown’s abolitionist passion, but declined to join the raid on Harper’s Ferry. He pleaded the cause of emancipation to Abraham Lincoln and helped enlist blacks in the Northern army during the Civil War. In the late 1880’s he denounced the government for abandoning ex-slaves and fought segregation. He was at a women’s rights rally the day he died.

Douglass House
Douglass was so eloquent an orator that some listeners thought him a fake (no self-taught ex-slave could possibly speak so well!). Others compared him to Daniel Webster. He wrote as eloquently as he spoke.

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham.”

“Right is of no sex - truth of no color - God is father of us all, and we are all brethren.”


In the 1870’s Frederick and Anna Douglass bought Cedar Hill, the beautiful white house that crowns a hill in Anacostia (SE Washington). From its wide front porch you have a panoramic view of the city - the Washington Memorial and the Capitol. It is a national historical park. Unusual among the historic houses I’ve seen, Cedar Hill has an estimated 90% of the original furnishings used by Frederick Douglass. GREAT.

I have been frustrated before in my attempts to research Frederick Douglass. In 1990 in England I went to the British Library to find a book on his lecture tour of England and Ireland. It was in the bindery. Come back in six weeks, I was told. I did. Still in the bindery. Come back. Another two months. Still in the bindery !!!!!

Douglass Mural

We found the Douglass home in Anacostia and I eagerly climbed the hill. The house was locked up. A special singular staff development day (!#@!)). Only one tour and there are 37 children coming and no more allowed, but you could call at 2:45. Maybe a kid’s sick. I waited. I toured the small museum at the foot of the hill and saw a wonderful film on Douglass and his death mask and a full sized statue and Abraham Lincoln’s cane (given to him by Mary Lincoln after Lincoln’s assassination). At 2:45 the bus arrived with 39 children. No chance now. Maybe on our trip home.

3/10 .. cont.

Then we were southbound on Route 1 again, pointing for Mt. Vernon. That’s right, Mainers, ol’ George had to put up with the traffic on Rt.1, too. We couldn’t just cruise on by, of course. Washington is THE big enchilada. The indispensable man. We joined the parade into his driveway.

Mount Vernon is a very beautiful spot, and you can understand Washington’s longing to get back here, away from all the demands we made on him as THE FATHER. And still he gets no peace. He would entertain 400 visitors a year in his retirement, now a million of us make the pilgrimage down the Potomac each year, and trek through his parlors.

Mount Vernon

Somehow I expected it to be larger, forgetting that even plantation mansions in the 18th century were modest by comparison to a modern edifice complex. And the rooms are livable, not showcases of self-importance. And I had expected the man to be present somehow, the way a charge lingers in well-loved places, or on bloodied ground. But the millions of pilgrims have trampled out that vintage. Or so it felt to me. The trees he planted, the walled garden he dug, the house and buildings he designed, then have a coherence and an integrity which mirror the man, but in turning him into an icon we have evaporated his humanity. Is that what heroism ultimately leads to? Hollow museums where all we hear is the echo of our shuffling through.. and the gabble of docents?

Still, you can’t denigrate Washington, even by parading through his house slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. Some giants you can’t bury. There was an elderly woman sitting on his front veranda silently watching the light pinken over the Potomac. She was a local lady, who comes all the time, she said.. just to be there. I bet she knows where George is hiding.

(Memo #56)

March 10 - Mount Vernon - Plantation Training for National Leaders

Who? George Washington

What? largely self-sufficient plantation

Where? on the Potomac River in tidewater Virginia

When? he lived there for 45 years (from 1754 to 1799)

How? his father built house, his brother enlarged it , he enlarged it

Topics: plantation culture, leadership, economics of plantation life

Questions: How did the plantations create national leaders? What skills did a gentleman planter need?

Mount Vernon

The plantations of Virginia produced an incredible number of American leaders: Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Tyler, Harrison; military leaders Lighthorse Harry Lee, Robert E. Lee; assorted politicos named Byrd, Randolph, Mason etcetera etcetera. What was it about this culture which produced national leaders?

Mount Vernon is a good place to find an answer. It is perhaps the loveliest of the Virginia manors, a gracious white columned house on a hill overlooking the Potomac. It is certainly the most famous, a national icon (I have a clock with its image). The parking lots are away from the house, you follow a path past assorted fields and animals, then turn at a white gate. Far off to your right, the original white estate gates top a rise. To your left lawns and driveway lead to the mansion.

I took the audio tour. My brother started me on this in art museums and generally they are great sources of information. Turns out all the labeled tree giants were planted by George Washington himself(!) and the meandering paths and curving brick walls were intended to give a more naturalistic feel than rectilinear walks (so visible in other plantations and English great houses and their gardens). Plantings, he said, had to have a “regular irregularity.” The mansion house started as a simple four-room-around-central-hall-house, expanded again and again. The land side is pretty unadorned, with colonnaded walks sweeping out on either side to the 20 small outbuildings (known as “ dependencies”) that are well hidden behind hedges and shrubs. The river side has the great veranda with three-story columns and an incredible view down the hill to the Potomac. No modern structures were to be seen.

The house itself is gorgeous, each room carefully planned, decorated, furnished. Washington was an amateur architect and builder, studying European homes and gardens (though he never traveled there). His notes and plans show his care. For example, he carefully had the exterior boards cut in blocks and then had the paint dappled with sand to resemble stone. The glories are the stucco trim and wooden moldings. In the great room the ceiling has agricultural symbols carefully detailed. Washington ordered china and furniture (a spinet, sideboards) from England. There are ten bedrooms upstairs, his own reached by a separate staircase from his large first floor study.

Slave Quarters

Slave Quarters - interior
The plantation manor house is really the center of a small village (its dependencies). I toured the formal botanical garden and greenhouse, kitchen gardens and orchards, slave quarters, shoemakers rooms, stables, carriage house, laundry, smokehouse, spinning room, storehouse, clerk’s quarters, kitchen, paint cellar. All these are near the great house. Down the hill are his great barn, corrals, boat landing. Further away are a grist mill, saw mill, distillery.

A plantation was home to literally hundreds of people - the family, guests, hired white workers (ex. overseer, schoolmaster, gardener, clerk), indentured servants
(specialists like the saddler, boatmaker , “the French stucco man” who did the incredible walls and ceilings in the house), and slaves (specialists like the cook, house servants, fieldhands). Washington had 12 white workers, over 300 slaves. In the busy times after the presidency he once had 400 guests in a single year! Mount Vernon was a huge and complicated economic enterprise requiring a variety of skills.

Interior - 2

Here are some of the statistics. Washington eventually owned five farms in the neighborhood (expanding his holdings from 2100 to 8000 acres). He identified himself as a farmer and was a progressive one (his library held many botanical books and he experimented with crop rotation and fertilizers). He speculated on land in the west
(starting as a surveyor in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains) and schemes like the first inland canals. Mount Vernon had fields to grow the cash crops (wheat and tobacco), which were harvested and eventually loaded on ships at the landing. He experimented with different grains and grasses to support his 100 cow dairy herd (not profitable in the long run) and his many horses (he loved foxhunting) and the 800 sheep (wool for the Mt. Vernon clothmaking). The woods and small lumber mill provided wood for heat, building, and to fuel his distillery and the smokehouse. He ran a fish business, catching them in the river below the house from his several boats, then salting down (one order in his account books is for 562 barrels). One account says when the fish ran they fished round the clock and the slaves were even paid to fish Sundays (yes, slaves did get paid for some tasks and this was the way some saved to buy their freedom). He bred the first American mules at Mount Vernon. There were orchards for fruit and brandy, beekeeping in basketry hives (called "skips") since Washington favored honey on his hoecakes for breakfast. While the planter ran the farm, keeping account with the help of clerks and administering through a chain of plantation subordinates and agents in the cities who made regular reports, the wife oversaw the house (kitchens, laundry, textile making, soapmaking etcetera etcetera) through her own chain of subordinates. A plantation was a huge complex business conglomerate.

From little acorns
Beyond the plantation, the planter had civic duties. Washington, like most successful men, served as Burgess (representative to the Virginia colonial legislature in Williamsburg), Justice of the Peace, Vestryman in his church. His professional career was the army. He trained as a surveyor. The labels that could be put on Washington are endless: soldier, surveyor, dairyman, businessman, farmer and on and on.

What better preparation could there be for running a country?

3/10.. concluded.

So how much do I have to give to get to sleep in Washington’s bedroom?
I'd have given a pretty penny to have dossed down at Mt. Vernon that night, but had to settle for an EconoLodge on Route 1, round the corner from George Mason’s digs.

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