It wasn’t until I actually stood upon that porch of Mount Vernon—or the “piazza,” as it is called—that I finally came to appreciate and understand the man who was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” It never would have occurred to me that one day I would actually be standing there, walking around that porch, situated in such a beautiful setting, overlooking the glistening Potomac in the summer sun, only to rethink what I thought about “the man in the marble,” George Washington. It was on that excursion that I came to see our country’s first President in an entirely different light. It took a visit to his home to remove all those layers of myth that had surrounded him and to recognize that he wasn’t such a remote figure after all—that there was more to him than his false wooden teeth and the powdered white wig.
It was back in the mid-1990s when I went on a historical journey to Washington, D.C., to give vent to my lifelong interest in American history. It had been many years before when my father had been part of a lightning-fast one-day bus trip to the capital; it was back in the L.B.J. days when my father’s “tour” of D.C. consisted of just riding past the White House—and that’s as close as he ever got to the “Johnson treatment.” (Why it was just a bus trip and nothing else, I never thought of asking him about at the time, to my everlasting regret.) Now, it was my turn and I sure wasn’t going to simply whiz by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue if I could help it.
The White House, of course, was on the top of my “must-sees”; like many others, I obtained a ticket to walk up the most famous of driveways and finally enter the executive mansion to see for myself the historical riches contained therein. At the time of my trip, another Democrat was resident in the White House, and he had Jefferson for a middle name. That wasn’t the reason why I went, of course; I wanted to explore my historical heritage and in the few days allotted to this trip, I wanted to experience as much of it as I possibly could. There was only so much I could see; yet I wanted to see more: though I had a ticket to the United States Capitol, I never got around to setting foot inside the “People’s House,” a.k.a. the House of Representatives. I did, however, meet the Republican congressman from my district (a pleasant gentleman of the old school who has long since retired) who had his offices in the Rayburn House Office Building. I did see some “names” that only political junkies like myself would recognize traipsing the hallways. I do remember thinking that you do a lot of walking in the halls of government and that it sure takes time to make those “roll calls.”
Yes, Washington was and is a city of presidents. While there, I viewed the spot where President Kennedy’s casket rested during his funeral Mass in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in November 1963 and later visited Arlington National Cemetery where he and his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, were buried, along with many others who figured prominently in our nation’s history. At Ford’s Theatre, I glanced at the box where President Lincoln sat the night of his assassination; I also visited the Peterson House (or, as the sign on the railing has it: “The House Where Lincoln Died”) across the street where he expired the morning after, in a bed (with its blood-stained pillows) that was not large—or long—enough to hold his famously lanky frame.
That particular trip to Ford’s and the surrounding area was a study in contrasts: right next door was a Catholic Church—St. Patrick’s—with its beautiful marble holy water fonts of wide-winged angels at the back of the church. (Which made me wonder what it must have been like for the priest that night, being so near a politically apocalyptic event.) Then, further down the block and across the street was a CVS drugstore and further afield, all kinds of shops and tourist-themed stores. If I didn’t remember where I was, I would have thought I was in some upscale suburban enclave, like White Plains, N.Y., but I was not. The important part of the trip lay ahead; George Washington—and Mount Vernon—beckoned.
It turned out to be a magical experience. The vistas were breathtaking and I felt myself transported back in time and savored a “colonial experience” that I had only read about in books. That overused phrase—“history comes alive”—shortly became one of the greatest of understatements the minute I walked through the front door and saw for myself the measure of the man through the place that was his home. Every room had a significance: each one had a dignity and quiet elegance, very much like the man himself. But the outward appearances didn’t tell the whole story, as I was to discover. It took many, many years for both the building and the man to become what they eventually became. And while it took bricks and mortar for the construction of Mount Vernon to arise, it took personal growth and what became known as “The Rules of Civility” for George Washington to inhabit his 6-foot-3 plus frame—both mansion and man had to be carefully constructed over time.
Despite all that he eventually accomplished, there were two notable battles that Washington fought, and they were very far from the battlefield: addressing his lack of education and controlling his underlying hot temper. George Washington wasn’t as well educated as many of the other Founding Fathers; indeed, he keenly felt his lack of a formal, classical education. That is not to say he was “unlearned.” On the contrary, he valued learning for its own sake and was reputed to have one of the largest privately owned libraries of his day. He believed in the wisdom he learned from his books and most importantly, from his own life experiences. And, like any willful personality, he sought to control a temperament that could at times threaten his equanimity. So, as a teenager, he began his lifetime self-improvement project: writing down certain rules of behavior for meditation and self-reflection.
The maxims that he wrote by hand covered some one hundred or so sayings or admonitions on how to behave in polite society and George Washington, the willful teenager, was determined to be the embodiment of them. Originally, he started this project with the initial aim of improving his penmanship; and if he became a more subtle, poised and self-possessed person as a result, so much the better. But it was the aim of learning how to be “acceptable” and “respectable” that took up his time and attention. Little did he know when he began writing that the “social graces” he hoped to embody someday were actually compiled by French Jesuits in the 1590s and translated into English and printed in London sometime around 1640. (“Oh, George, We Hardly Knew Ye To Be So Jesuitical!)
It takes great effort to learn the social graces and to be “acceptable” in company, whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself in life—and this is no more true for the “great” person than it is for the “ordinary” one. One need not be a President of the United States to understand the importance of such virtues, but it helps. It is fortunate for the future United States that a willful teenager in the late 1740s, who originally aspired to be a surveyor, paved such a notable path for himself on history’s stage. George Washington wasn’t a perfect man, by any means; but I came to understand historian James Thomas Flexner’s characterization of him as the “indispensable man.”
My Mount Vernon pilgrimage soon ended, leaving many impressions and memories. I still have my few George Washington souvenirs from that long-ago trip: the bookmarks, the National Park Service brochures and other assorted knickknacks, including the few pebbles I swiped from the road leading up to the house. (I’m sure our First Magistrate would pardon me for that transgression!) But there is one thing I’ll always remember and never fail in the retelling: that time, years ago, when history and modernity met the moment I had a cheeseburger at George Washington’s place, and surreptitiously saluted “the man in the marble.”