George Washington Slept Here

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

George Washingtons uniform
Uniform worn by George Washington during the American Revolution. NMAH, SI

"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.

The effort is laudable and will doubtless do his image some good. Gilbert Stuart, who took a dislike to Washington, gave us the grim portrait that still chills us from the dollar bill. The 19th century made him into a monument endowed with almost superhuman virtues and encrusted in formality. “Did anyone ever see Washington naked!” Nathaniel Hawthorne once said. “I imagine [he] was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered.” In our own debunking age, a considerable part of the effort to humanize Washington emphasizes the flesh and blood farmer, acquirer or real estate and owner of slaves. We learn that he loved children but never had any of his own. That he practiced soil chemistry and crop rotation, giving up tobacco in favor of wheat. He also bred mules, was one of the finest horsemen of the age, liked to dance and play cards and –though he ate and drank sparingly-distilled and sold whiskey out of Mount Vernon. Much has been, and will be, made about the fact that he fell half in love with his next-door neighbor's young wife, Sally Fairfax, then married a rich widow, a fact less important than that he was apparently faithful to Martha for 40 years. And, of course, there are those sets of false teeth, not wooden but made from hippo tusks and other materials that pained him continually and deformed his face.

Bringing Washington to life these days is a hard row to hoe, because he really was a monument, too. The stoic Roman virtues that he practiced are almost entirely alien to our febrile times. He was a leader and a patriot, not a politician; the authority figure of all authority figures. Like the Romans he saw ambition not as a matter of individual ego but as a public duty. Infinitely scrupulous, infinitely patient, endlessly devoted to the vision of political union, a democratic republic strong enough and just enough and sensible enough to prosper, he became quite literally the father of a new country. But “father knows best” does not play well today when bumpers are plastered with “Question Authority” stickers, while assorted cultural influences simply presuppose that fathers are hopeless boobs, that patriotic exhortation is mostly phony, and that the restraint, discipline and order that Washington brought to everyday life are hypocritical.

It is hard to understand what the country owed him, if you believe, as people today tend to, that everything had to happen the way it did happen. We can hardly imagine the new republic, its birth perilous, its destiny decidedly not manifest, a tiny shaky experiment, torn with dissension, deeply in debt, a prey to internal anarchy and the external ambitions of Europe. All similar experiments had ended in mob rule or oligarchy or dictatorship.

Washington was a practical man, a thinker and problem solver, and an original self-help American. He spent his life studying and figuring out what was the right thing to do, then gave it his best shot. He had the latest books on how to be an expert farmer. On how to become your own architect. Books on government and philosophy. The works of Seneca. As general, he figured out how to fight the British starting with no army at all. As President, Washington managed to get the best out of men as opposed as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Above all, he managed to figure out how to bring the union safely into being.

As President he also stayed as much as possible apart from partisan politic, something we can hardly imagine now. Early on the job, when everything he did set a precedent, he visited the Senate, listened to a good deal of wordy bickering, then left, reportedly saying, “I'm damned if I go there again.” And he never did.

Nothing symbolizes the modern age's difficulty in understanding Washington's life and time more than the easy moral outrage that encourages the present to simplify the past in order to condemn it. Especially the matter of slavery. Washington was deeply troubled by slavery. After the Revolution, he did not, with one exception, sell Mount Vernon's slaves away from their families, and he studied ways in which they might be equipped for freedom, including an arrangement by which they could work for one of his tenants and get paid for it. In his will he stipulated that his slaves should be freed upon his wife's death, and specifically left money that was still supporting them at least 30 years after his death.

In the end, what did away with slavery was the decline of state sovereignty and the growing power of the union that the constitution made possible. That and the rise of commerce, set in motion by Washington and Hamilton and opposed by states' rights advocates like Jefferson and others, who championed agriculture even though in the South it was largely based on slavery. Washington understood that the end of slavery would be possible only when the federal government was strong and more people made their living in trade, in manufacturing and other nonagrarian pursuits. Jefferson bitterly disagreed.

It would take a long and bloody civil war to prove that Washington had been right. Yet Jefferson's final assessment of the first President is worth remembering. “His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known and no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good and a great man.”

George Washington died at age 67 in the big family bed on the second floor of Mount Vernon, on December 14, 1799. He was exhausted; a sudden inflammation of the throat stopped his breathing. At Mount Vernon, you can see the room as it was, complete with blood-letting implements and bloody rags. “Tis well,” he whispered as he died, perhaps thinking of a lifetime of effort, perhaps merely that the hours of pain were over. Martha died just two years later. She never slept in that bed again.

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