Not surprising to find that Keith McCullar and I are cultural tourists, and, given our vocations, it might be more precise to say we’re material culture tourists. Though not spiritualists, we every now and again find a nearly palpable presence visiting certain historic sites that preserve and contextualize the habitation and personal property of the original occupants. One of those places is Mount Vernon.
Despite the hordes of visitors, Mount Vernon nevertheless carefully preserves a mansion and farm that I would venture to say the nation’s first first couple would, were they to return, not only recognize as little changed but also find instantly habitable. Although George and Martha Washington had no children together, Mrs. Washington’s descendents and General Washington’s nephews constituted an enormous extended family that, upon the death of Martha Washington in 1802 resulted in the dispersal of a significant amount of the original contents of the mansion. That said, all the articles removed from Mount Vernon were instantly accorded the status of relics by subsequent owners such that their preservation was insured. Consequently, in the fullness of time, articles have found their way back to Mount Vernon in such significant numbers that one can gain a real sense, at least visually, of what life was like during Washington’s final years there.
An understanding of all this is helped immeasurably by the catalog The George Washington Collection: Fine and Decorative Arts at Mount Vernon, written by estate director of collections Carol Borchert Cadou. Along with the descriptive text, the original acquisition of virtually all the items by the Washingtons is given some considerable measure of context by the citation of family correspondence related to each item. Often it is a letter from Washington himself, either to his London agent or some such other trusted friend or relation, requesting that a purchase be made in his name. What’s particularly interesting is the frequency and specificity with which Washington, while seeking pieces of the best quality in the latest fashion, gives the admonition that, in purchased articles, any thing of a showy mien be avoided. One could say that these sorts of inclusions in the catalog might serve a hagiographic purpose, but I rather think the ostensible serves to reinforce the actual, that Washington was thoroughly the prudent, practical figure that he is always thought to be. Though knowledgeable in the ways of the world, through the catalog his possessions speak of someone who is not precisely worldly and, moreover, consciously seeks to avoid any such association. His ongoing attachment to Mount Vernon and its furnishings reflects very little in the way of self-aggrandizement, but more in consonance with a manifestation of the virtue of rural life Washington felt accorded with his own position as a member of the gentry. As a military and ultimately a political leader he knew himself to be a public figure whose every action, and every acquisition, must be in keeping with this same virtue he knew his countrymen should, and hopefully would, emulate.