George Washington Slept Here

A great and good man, but bringing him to life in a debunking age is a hard row to hoe

Uniform worn by George Washington during the American Revolution. (NMAH, SI)
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"I not being so good a woodsman as the rest of my Company striped my self very orderly and went in to the Bed as they call'd it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw—Matted together [and] one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight in Vermin such as Lice and Fleas etc.”

Thus George Washington, at age 16, confided to his diary. The year was 1748. He was largely self-taught, far from home, trying to learn the surveyor's trade.

Eventually the father of his country would sleep in a very great number of beds, so that one of them seems suitable enough as an object at hand. All through the 1750s he traveled the Western wilderness, first as a surveyor, then as a colonial officer. He had two horses shot from under him in battle, helping England fight France for possession of the continent. After some years building up Mount Vernon as a farm, in May 1775 he was off to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He would be back soon, he wrote Martha after he left Mount Vernon, but it was eight and a half years before he got home for good.

Instead, he had to go straight to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Commander in Chief of the new Continental Army in what was fast becoming the American Revolution. Thereafter he was on the move, fighting and retreating hither and yon, skillfully keeping his ragtag army in being. “If I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy,” Washington wrote his cousin, “I should put him in my stead.” As the plight of the colonies seemed more and more hopeless, Washington was offered dictatorial powers. He declined to use them. He threatened to resign his impossible task; he and the feckless Congress faced the fact that there was no one else to take up such a burden.

Finally the French joined in the fight against their old enemy, and the British gave up and went home. By then it was 1783. He had a few happy years getting Mount Vernon's fields and livestock back into proper shape. But in the long, hot summer of 1787 the country called on him again, this time to serve at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The other delegates knew he would be the new republic's first elected President. Many delegates, particularly those from the south, hated the idea of the kind of federal government Washington stood for. But knowing his character by then, they understood that he would not abuse whatever powers they gave him and were a bit more inclined to grant them.

He was unanimously elected President in 1789 and headed for New York City, chosen as the first seat of the new government. His job? To set sound political precedents and show how the first President of the world's most promising but precarious political experiment ought to behave.

Driven by duty to present himself to the citizens of the shaky new union, he spent the night in so many inns and private houses that “George Washington Slept Here” became a real estate cliché, as well as the title of a clunky 1940 stage (and screen) comedy by Kaufman and Hart. Our object at hand was not one of the many beds Washington slept on while upon his travels. It is rather his first ‘best bed,' as a particularly fine bed was then described, inherited, like Mount Vernon itself, from his half-brother Lawrence.

Antiques experts refer to it as a “married piece,” meaning that at some point in the past its original mahogany quatrefoil bedpost were wedded to replacement parts to complete the bedstead. Swathed in elaborate 18th-century-style canopies, the bed is now to be seen on Mount Vernon's main floor. Along with many other authentic items, ten of them on loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, it was sent to Mount Vernon to be part of a nationwide effort to reacquaint Americans with Washington on the 200th anniversary of his death.

In the nick of time, it would appear. A year or so ago, a town in Louisiana took Washington's name off an elementary school, giving as a reason that he owned slaves. Today, historians at Mount Vernon note, young people are no longer sure whey the man's face is on the quarter and the dollar bill.

Pictures, documents and objects associated with Washington are now on display, many centering around Mount Vernon, refurbished to look more like the working farm and family home it was rather than than the quasi museum it had become.


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