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Think he’ll friend me back? May 13, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood went to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, yesterday. It was the first time I’d been back since I was a child.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the architecture, the majestic setting, the fact that it was the home of our first and greatest President, or even that it was the seat of my own relative Martha Dandridge (Custis Washington), that impressed the youthful Ben. Yes, I loved Colonial history and architecture even then. But no amount of history or achitecture could compete with the stench rising up from the (then) foully polluted Potomac River. It was basically the only memory I took away from my childhood visit to this historic site.

Mercifully, it’s been decades since the Potomac has been cleaned up. Now joggers, cyclists, walkers, and picnicers enjoy trails along its banks, often with their families and dogs. Not a whiff of foulness and rot rises from the river. Instead, the whirr of power boats, the honk of towboats, and the majestic sight of yachts and cruise ships brings your attention to the great expanse of water that, legend has it, as a young man George Washington hurled a silver dollar across to show his strength.

Looking across what seems like miles of water, this story seems as much a legend as Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child. (“I cannot tell a lie.”) Yet it was supposedly witnessed. And certainly the young, athletic, 6’4″ Washington (he had shrunk to “just” 6’2″ in his 60s) prided himself on his prodigious strength.

If you think this feat unlikely, consider that the young athlete Benjamin Franklin regularly swam across the mighty Delaware River in Philadelphia for exercise, something few Olympic swimmers would consider doing today (and not one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted).

History affirms Ben’s wholesome swims, quite a slap in the face to the picture of the portly elder statesman. And Ben in his youth was not only a vegetarian but a teetotaler, denouncing the consumption of alcohol and advocating drinking water instead, a radical (and probably misguided) idea in an era when raw sewage was dumped in the streets and polluted the wells, rivers, and other water sources.

The general populace may have been ignorant as to why, but they were right that drinking water could kill you. No wonder they drank massive quantities of alcohol—beer, small beer, hard cider, grog, ale, wine, fortified wine like Port and Madeira, sparkling wine, wine punches, rum, gin, and so on—from morning to night. God forbid that you should drink a drop of that sickening, polluted water!

But I digress. As a Colonial history buff, I was probably a bit more aware of George Washington the man than many visitors to Mount Vernon the day Silence and I came. I knew how tall he was, and that only that other great Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris, was as tall; I knew he had numerous sets of false teeth made, but they were made of ivory and human teeth, not wood. I knew he was a great gardener, farmer, and botanist, as well as a statesman, and I was aware not just of his keen interest in agriculture but of all the innovations he implemented on the Mount Vernon estate.

I knew he had the foresight to abandon growing tobacco, a nutrient-greedy and labor-intensive crop, on his land and turn it to more sustainable crops two hundred years before the idea caught hold with other American farmers. And I knew that he freed his slaves on his death, something Ben Franklin had done well before his death, but that Thomas Jefferson never did, his will requiring them to all be sold off to settle his massive debts, along with his home Monticello and all its furnishings, leaving his heirs with nothing. Washington by contrast not only left his widow and heirs well provided for, but also provided funds for the education and fortune of his freed slaves.

What I didn’t know, and what the tour of Mount Vernon told me, was that the house at Mount Vernon was made of wood, and that George Washington had had the planks planed, varnished, painted, and then covered with sand so that they resembled set stone. He also had the roofing shaped from wood to resemble Italian ceramic tiles, and painted red to match them. I can’t imagine the upkeep this would have required, but as trompe d’oeil (fool the eye), it was brilliant.

But there was something else I didn’t know, and it came as quite a shock. I knew that George Washington’s inherent courtesy caused his death. On a cold December day, he’d gone riding as usual over the lands of Mount Vernon to see how the plantation was faring. Rain, sleet and snow drenched his garments and soaked him to the skin. But Washington, who never regarded the weather or his own typically robust health, never thought to turn back. After a long day in this bitter weather, he returned to Mount Vernon.

Upon arriving home, Washington saw that his guests had already assembled for dinner. As punctilious a host as he was a commander, he refused to consider detaining them by changing into dry clothing. So he sat there, chilled to the bone, in wet, frigid clothes, for hours, entertaining his guests. By the next morning, he felt that he’d caught a chill. But colds and the like meant nothing to a man who’d never been sick and had emerged unscathed from barrages of bullets that had riddled his uniform and killed the horses he was riding. What was a little cold compared to that?!

Unfortunately, today’s doctors think that he caught a rare but horrendous bacterial throat infection. I’d always assumed it must have been a high fever that killed him so quickly in his prime, but the evidence says otherwise. Apparently a bacterial infection of the epiglottis caused the first President’s throat to swell shut and killed him by suffocation. (Contemporary accounts of doctors and slaves attempting to give him liquids and his being unable to swallow them tend to bear this diagnosis out.)

This would have been a horrific way to die, but comparatively quick, given the so-called medical treatments of most of the doctors of the day. (And of course they did bleed George Washington four times between the onset of his illness and his death, weakening him further. No doubt it was only his robust constitution that allowed him to hold on through the bleedings rather than dying like most people who were bled.)

But the real sorrow was that the account pointed out that, had antibiotics been known in Washington’s time, he could have been quickly cured and might have lived at least 20 years longer, like his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The Father of Our Country died too soon, and pointlessly.

But there was something else our friend Ben didn’t know about Mount Vernon: That it was and remains the graveyard of George and Martha Washington and generations of other Washingtons. You can visit the crypt and pay your respects to the Washingtons. I had no idea. Thank goodness the site was preserved and not turned into townhouses or an industrial complex! Good grief. To think that a tour of Mount Vernon also includes a visit to George Washington’s actual grave! Yow. You can look into the crypt and see two plain marble sarcophogi. One bears the seal of office, carved into the marble, and says simply: “Washington.” The other is completely plain. It says: “Martha: Wife of Washington.”

Clearly, for a generation for whom George Washington was peerless, that was enough.

I’d love to end this post here, but I have to add one poignant and one humorous comment picked up during our trip. First, when I asked the hotel clerk, a pleasant, competent young man, how to get to Mount Vernon from our hotel in nearby Falls Church, VA (for those who think Washington and environs are somehow offshore, they’re actually in Virginia, George Washington’s home state), he seemed a bit bemused. As with all check-in desk clerks, he was very used to recommending restaurants and directing travelers. But this time, he was stumped. “Ah, ahem, is that a city in Maryland?”

Well, no. It happens to be the home of the Father of our Country. But of course, who wants to be rude? I thanked the desk clerk and turned to our maps.

Now for the humorous part. When Silence and I were lining up for our tour of the mansion, we overheard a woman saying to her son, “They want me to friend George Washington on Facebook. Do you think he’ll friend me back?” Oh, oh, oh. Classic! But if George were here, I wonder…


Why is it called Mount Vernon? May 8, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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If you’ve been following Poor Richard’s Almanac, you’ll know that our hero and blog mentor is the great Benjamin Franklin, and that we’re obsessed with all things Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are going down to Washington, DC this weekend, and are contemplating a trip to Mount Vernon, which I haven’t seen since childhood and Silence has never seen, en route back.

Contemplating returning as an adult and seeing the property through adult eyes must have stimulated a few dormant brain cells, since I suddenly began wondering why the place was called Mount Vernon. As much as I’ve read about George Washington and his family history, it had never dawned on me to ask this question before. To my knowledge, no Washington ancestors were named Vernon, and there certainly was no mountain called Vernon bordering the Potomac. What the bleep?!

Fortunately, a visit with Wikipedia resolved the mystery fast enough. Turns out, the Washington plantation was originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation after the Little Hunting Creek which ran nearby.

But George Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence, who owned the property before him, renamed the estate in honor of his revered Royal Naval commander, the British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. (Where the “Mount” comes from remains a mystery.) Upon Lawrence’s untimely death and George’s inheritance, the much younger George, who revered Lawrence as Lawrence revered Admiral Vernon, elected to retain the name his brother had bestowed on the property.

This all sounds ironic in light of brother George’s Revolutionary uprising and defeat of the British forces, not to mention his becoming the first President of the United States. But you have to remember that, until the Revolution, all American colonists, even Doctor Franklin, considered themselves to be British citizens. Vice Admiral Vernon never attacked American citizens; rather, he won a number of major wars in their defense, with Lawrence Washington fighting under his command.

No doubt, those of us living in post-Revolutionary times would rather have George Washington’s iconic home named Mount Washington or Washington on the Potomac or something, rather than honoring a British Admiral. But let’s try to be fair as George Washington was fair, refusing to punish Colonists who sided with the pro-British Tory faction even during the Revolution. We owe our Founding Father that much at least.

The Wal-Martization of our national heritage April 5, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben grew up in a history-loving family, and many childhood vacations were spent touring Colonial homes, museums, and other sites of historical import. Thus our friend Ben was green with envy to hear that our friend Sarah had just returned from what to me would have been a dream vacation—touring Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, and Jamestown.

I was just saying to Silence on our recent trip to North Carolina, where we passed the site of Nathanael Greene’s famous Revolutionary battle of Guilford Courthouse, that I hadn’t been back to Mount Vernon since I was a child, and a visit was overdue. And I’ve been trying to pry us out of the hands of relatives so we could spend Christmas at Williamsburg for several years now. (No luck, but maybe this year…)

Anyway, our friend Ben eagerly pressed Sarah for details of her trip, and was horrified by what I heard. Apparently, George Washington’s stately home, his beloved Mount Vernon, has now been dwarfed by a giant visitors’ center plopped right on the grounds, sort of like a giant highway rest area with food courts and tourist info. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the visitors’ center experience and tour the virtual Mount Vernon at the expense of Washington’s actual home. Similarly, Sarah bemoaned the fact that she and her companion weren’t even able to see the actual Jamestown site, only the “tourist-friendly” reproduction.

Our friend Ben is appalled. In today’s world of impersonal furnishings chosen by interior decorators, I suppose it’s easy to lose track of how very personal these homes were to their owners, who often designed the homes themselves as well as personally choosing every book, every bauble, and every stick of furniture. To see the house is to know the owner in a very real way.

Most of the time, the Founding Fathers strike us as larger-than-life and/or cardboard figures, playing out their roles on the stage of history, far removed from us. But when you see that James Madison, whose fragile health prevented him (alone of all the great Founders) from ever leaving the U.S., filled his home, Montpelier, with souvenirs of France; when you see all the ingenious, homely domestic comforts that Thomas Jefferson designed and installed at Monticello; when you see the exquisite scenery hand-painted on the walls of The Hermitage, the supposedly nail-hard Andrew Jackson’s retreat from the world; when you see the grounds of Mount Vernon that George Washington rode over every day he could get away home until he died—when you see all this, any of this, suddenly history takes on flesh.

No matter how much you may have read of their writings, how many biographies, how much Colonial and Federal history, in their homes, and for the very first time, you feel you actually know them. You know their vanities; you know their treasures; you know their pleasures. You know what ultimately mattered to them personally when they could escape the cares of state.

This is living history, and this is why it grieves our friend Ben so to think that now, instead of seeing Mount Vernon’s house and grounds as George Washington saw it, visitors will see a massive, modern building. Instead of enjoying a private home, they will have a box-store experience: not one man’s intensely private vision, but a slickly produced, focus-group-approved, committee-created mass entertainment. The unspeakable offspring of television and Wal-Mart, devoid of individuality, destroying the opportunity to explore and discover on one’s own, to find the meaning at the heart of the experience.

Let me try to show, not tell. Come with our friend Ben across the Atlantic to England for a little time travel. Back in the day, when our friend Ben was a student spending a summer studying archaeology and digging up a bit of Roman Britain, our group took a trip to Stonehenge. The youthful Ben was very excited at the prospect of seeing the great megalithic monument, and was continually looking out the bus window, hoping to catch that first glimpse of the standing stones. Suddenly, across the Salisbury plain, I saw a very strange thing: it appeared to be a cluster of grey marshmallows covered with swarming, multicolored ants. It took our friend Ben a moment to realize that the marshmallows were Stonehenge, and the swarming ants were tourists. How could anyone possibly get a feeling for the place in the midst of that?

Our friend Ben was hugely deflated when the bus pulled up to the site. And then (to steal a line from “Amadeus”), a miracle happened: It began to rain. The colorful swarm subsided to their conveyances, and the dozen or so of us were alone among the stones. For a half-hour, if you were careful, you could walk in the place and not see another face. You were alone with history. At the end of the half-hour, we were loaded back on the bus. As we left, the sun came out. Our friend Ben peered out the window as the bus moved across the plain, hoping for one last glance at what had been a sacred experience. And what I saw was a cluster of grey marshmallows swarming with multicolored ants.

In case Stonehenge doesn’t seem to have much connection to Mount Vernon, my point is this: To be meaningful, personally meaningful, to become real, history requires privacy. It requires quiet. It requires the opportunity to form a personal connection, to create life from fact. If you’re a gardener, when you stand in Jefferson’s vegetable garden, you feel a connection to the man that no amount of reading the Declaration of Independence could ever give you. Looking at Washington’s plain but beautiful Sevres china, you can envision him enjoying the dinners he loved to host in his home. You are where they chose to be, seeing what they chose to do. Time drops away, and you are, for that moment, in communion.

What visitors’ center can give you that?