By Michael Kinney
Washington D.C. is one of my favorite cities to visit. I have been there several times and have enjoyed each encounter.
But no matter how many times I go, I always ended up on the National Mall checking out the different Smithsonian museums. They always make my trips worthwhile.
However, my most recent trip to D.C. came in the final week of March when the area was still under strict COVID-19 pandemic closures and protocols. That included every Smithsonian museum and art gallery.
So, I had to go outside my normal sphere and check out other attractions. This brought me to two places I thought I would have no interest in at all. Mount Vernon and Monticello.
For those who know their presidential history, they recognize those names as the Virginia plantation homes belonging to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both historical sites were open to the public so I figured this would be a great opportunity to check out how two of the founding fathers lived in all their glory and infamy.
Mount Vernon was first on the schedule since it was just a short ride from D.C. Washington’s plantation sits on the bank of the Potomac River and covers 8,000 acres. It is run by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, a private, non-profit organization.
Even though it was open to the public, COVID-19 protocols. Masks had to be worn, social distancing was encouraged and because there was no ventilation inside the mansion, they asked that there be no talking while inside. Also, areas of the mansion were blocked off for safety reasons, according to estate officials.
Despite that, being able to walk the same grounds Washington roamed and see the same scenery he gazed upon was interesting. For someone who easily could have made himself a king after the Revolutionary War, his estate was plain and workman-like. No extras. It fit the persona we were taught about him in the history books.
Washington had hundreds of guests visit a year during his post-presidency, which meant most of the 27 rooms were dedicated to making them feel more comfortable.
The tomb of Washington and his wife are not too far from the main house. It is also just 100 feet or so from the slave memorial.
Out of all the things I took in at Mount Vernon, what I felt the most was this newly built part of the museum and Education Center called “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.”
Over the course of more than 40 years, 577 enslaved men, women and children were kept at Mount Vernon and the museum provides a good amount of information on their daily lives under George and Martha.
“Through household furnishings, art works, archaeological discoveries, documents, and interactive displays, the exhibition, which spans 4,400 square feet throughout all seven galleries of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum, demonstrates how closely intertwined the lives of the Washington’s were with those of the enslaved,” the website stated. “Nineteen enslaved individuals are featured throughout the exhibit, represented with life-size silhouettes and interactive touchscreens providing biographical details.”
What I appreciated the most is that those in charge of the estate didn’t try and tip toe around how involved the Washington family was with slavery. That included the selling, breeding and hiring slave catchers for those who escaped. Pretty much the things we aren’t taught in school on Washington’s birthday.
The gallery does make sure to mention that Washington put in his will that the 123 enslaved people he owned outright would be set free after the death of his wife. While he was the only founding father to make such an act, it still left more than 300 men, women and children in bondage. They were passed down from Washington family member to family member for the rest of their lives.
Located almost three hours away from Mount Vernon, Monticello was designed to resemble the mansions he admired in Europe, but with his own taste and perfections.
Once again, certain areas of the mansion were blocked off due to COVID-19 protocols. But the rooms were able to head into showed just how much of a perfectionist Jefferson was. It was no wonder it took him 40 years to get the mansion and grounds his to Jefferson’s exact requirements.
The entire plantation seemed to be self-sustaining. From the gardens with dozens and dozens of different types of vegetables to the livestock corrals, which were all still in use. The plantation produced its own beer and wine as well as clothing.
Yet, with all that said, that history of Monticello can’t be told without the name Hemmings.
While the life of Sally Hemmings has come to light during the past few decades. As you walk the grounds, it is obvious the Hemmings family were responsible for almost every aspect of running the Monticello. From raising the Jefferson children to tending the garden to the word working, some members of the Hemmings family had a hand in it.
As visitors tour Monticello they learn more about the contradictory ideas that Jefferson presents. Not only was a one of the men who set America on its path toward freedom from an empire, but he also built an empire of his own on the backs of more than 600 enslaved people.
“After he married Martha Wayles Skelton, daughter of the wealthy slave trader John Wayles and half-sister of Sally Hemings, Jefferson inherited more human property—135 men, women, and children,” according to the Monticello site. “He also became a substantial landowner after the death of his father-in-law in 1774, gaining title to four plantations that comprised 14,000 acres in the Virginia piedmont. By 1782, a year before the end of the war with Britain, Jefferson had become the second-largest slaveholder in Albemarle County. From his vantage point as the “most blessed of the patriarchs” at Monticello, the “little mountain” and nerve center of his far-flung landholdings, Jefferson considered two unlikely things: his new slave empire and a future end to slavery.”
Both the Mount Vernon and Monticello plantation tours are no longer the feel-good tours they used to be. They no longer just show the pleasant, good side of the men who helped create and build America. They now show the dirty under belly of how their wealth was created on the sweat and blood of those who didn’t have the same freedom and rights.
Both tours give a more accurate representation of who the former presidents were and the decisions they made in life. For that reason alone, it’s worth going.
Copy & Photos by Michael Kinney Media