What do you know about George Washington?

I cannot tell a lie, I cut down the cherry tree. (Myth)

He had bad teeth and used wooden ones. (Partially true)

He wore a white wig. (Nope—that was his hair)

He stood in the prow of the boat crossing the Delaware River. (A great painting.)

He was a Mason and lived by their tenets. (True)

These are some of the childhood things I grew up knowing about our first president. Those ideas lingered, with not much more thought about George taking place throughout my life.

Until, okay, I’m going to admit it … until watching the highly entertaining TV show, Sleepy Hollow. There it is—it’s out there now. I love this fanciful TV show. The whole idea of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross—being highly imaginative, supernatural spies is appealing on multiple levels.

I already know a great deal about Ben from having taught a workshop with him as a cornerstone. Betsy remains elusive, but George? George was easy. We tackled tours of Mount Vernon and The George Washington Masonic National Memorial during our last jaunt to Washington, DC.

And it was about time, I’d say.

George was as amazing as I’d found Ben to be—intelligent, inventive, and an innovator.

He was an enterprising farmer—owning more than 3,000 acres—interested in trying new methods, fully documenting his efforts. He developed a 16-sided treading barn and the replica shows his advanced method (horse-driven) of handling the wheat harvest for maximum efficiency.

George was asked more than once to step into the public arena. After the war, he wanted to be a farmer and husband and father and grandfather. He repeatedly left office only to be pressed upon to return again and again. Washington didn’t want to be president, and yet wound up doing two terms. 

Touring Mount Vernon

The docents—you were handed off to a new one in each room—spoke of the slaves as “enslaved” people. No matter what it’s called, the thought of one person owning another sickens the soul of anyone with a conscious.

That said, the practice at the time was for the gentry to own slaves. You can read multiple views on Washington’s ownership of slaves. He was harsh or kind. George struggled with the idea of slavery—read and decide for yourself how to interpret it. What is clear in his will is that he freed the 123 slaves he owned. The docent didn’t explain what happened to the balance of the slaves, but the site does. The remaining 153 people were part of the “dower property” Martha inherited from her first marriage (Daniel Park Custis). Horrifyingly, law did not permit either George or Martha to release these people from bondage. Upon Martha’s death, they reverted to the heirs from the Custis lineage. 

Memorial to Mount Vernon slaves
Tribute to enslaved people

I urge you to visit the website and read the wealth of information available here about slavery at Mount Vernon. On the grounds, there is a moving tribute to the slaves. Please be respectful and silent when walking at the memorial and cemetery.

The Mount Vernon Website is Comprehensive

The original George W. had no formal education, a condition he found troublesome and corrected by a lifelong love of learning. He had an extensive library and treasured his books. Washington had a distillery, making rye and corn whiskey, which he expanded into the largest whiskey making enterprise in America.

You could spend an entire day at Mount Vernon watching the videos, walking the grounds, dining at the excellent restaurant. It is a factual site, where they don’t shine over Washington’s flaws, such as slave ownership. They convey the facts and urge you to think it through for your self.

George Washington Masonic National Memorial

It’s wasn’t until 1910 that the Freemasons established a memorial to Washington. Their goal: “To erect and maintain in the City of Alexandria, Virginia, a suitable memorial temple to George Washington, the Mason; one which will express in durability and beauty the undying esteem of the Freemasons of the United States for him, in whose memory it shall stand throughout the coming years.”

The tour is the only way to see the full building or take the elevator to the observation deck. Absolutely do it. Sitting atop an Alexandria hill, it is comprised of three sections—the bottom Doric, the middle Ionic, the top Corinthian. 

Opposite from George (17 feet of bronze) are two elevators on either side of the entrance. You can tell the breadth of the room. When you take the elevator to the top, here’s how close the elevators become. Isn’t that an amazing architectural/engineering feat?

You stop at a few of the floors, including the auditorium/theater with seating for at least 358. The Family of Freemasonry exhibit comprises various ceremonial garb that’s been worn over the decades.

Another interesting exhibit is the Form & Function of American Freemasonry. We learned the history of Freemasons in America and the part the organization has played/does play in our country. There is also the George Washington Museum with various artifacts from Mount Vernon including the 1792 family bible.

The eighth level has four amazing stained glass windows and is known as the Knight Templar Chapel. I couldn’t help but think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. 

On the top floor, visitors enjoy the Observation Deck and a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. We captured views of Alexandria’s King Street, the front grounds of the Memorial, and the skyline of Washington, DC.

George was Complicated—like most of us

What we learned about our first president during these tours is, in today’s terms, that he was a stand-up guy. He cared deeply about doing what was right and strove to live up to the standards he set for himself.

Yes, he struggled with the issue of slave ownership and how to extricate himself from it. But he was a good man trying to do his best.

When You Visit

Mount Vernon

Check the website ahead of time and pick your tour from the many available. Remember: it would be easy to spend an entire day, so plan for what you want to see and do.

There is a nice restaurant onsite, but it gets busy so you may want to make reservations.

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial:

The tours are one hour long and begin at 9:30, with at least half-hour breaks between. Plan on spending at least two hours exploring the exhibits.


Read, Alexandria, Virginia

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