George Washington is a rightly revered figure in this country. However, I argue here that, unless you understand the Mount Vernon estate, you cannot fully appreciate how impressive a thinker and manager Washington was. Put another way, Mount Vernon's landscape and environment exemplify Washington’s genius better than any of his other accomplishments.
A variety of perspectives exist concerning Washington. While some have elevated the first president to god-like status (see “The Apotheosis of Washington”), others have taken a more nuanced view. Thomas Jefferson, for example, once said that Washington’s mind was not “of the first order,” but later wrote, “On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.” (Excerpt from Jefferson’s letter to Dr. Walter Jones)
When lauding the General, most people focus on Washington leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, heading the Constitutional Convention, or serving as the nation’s first President. These are undoubtedly remarkable achievements. But Washington’s most impressive gifts were less in leadership than in his incredible managerial mind. The environment and various interactions with it at Mount Vernon best display this.
This is a big assertion, so what I want to do with this blog post is highlight a few examples from the Mount Vernon grounds that display Washington’s keen vision and managerial sense.
Sometimes this organizational mind trended toward mundane details (but still very important). Mount Vernon had what is believed to be the first American structure devoted to composting. The “repository for dung” was an open-walled structure that housed manure and other organic materials that could be turned into fertilizer. In a 1785 letter to George William Fairfax, Washington said that the best farmer was “Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold.” Using manure as fertilizer is not terribly special, but Washington had a special sense of its importance, and that was all part and parcel of controlling to farm production at every step.
Washington carefully crafted the plantation and its environment not only to suit his taste but as an expression of his wealth and incredible agricultural mind. For example, Washington had a phenomenal greenhouse. Greenhouses do not seem special to us today, but Washington’s was an impressive one of his own design. And his winter visitors would have been amazed to taste fresh coffee, oranges, lemons, and limes, and many of them likely had never seen a palm tree in person. During the winter, an enslaved laborer maintained a fire around the clock that warmed the greenhouse with radiant floorboard heating, keeping all of the sensitive tropical plants alive. Having a greenhouse was expensive, in terms of both money and labor, and Washington went through great effort to make sure that his was both pleasing and extraordinary. (The photo is from an insurance engraving of how the greenhouse looked during Washington’s life. Image credit Jason Steinagle.)
Similarly, Washington took great pains to make sure that his house was viewed only on his terms. For example, while the mansion house Washington inherited (much tinier than his eventual additions would make it) had a single, straight driveway, Washington eventually changed that to a double, bell-shaped path. And in the middle of those paths was his bowling green, an immense stretch of grass. Again, this does not seem remarkable to twenty-first century viewers, but it was an ostentatious display of wealth at the time. The green had to be mowed with hand scythes (of course by enslaved persons), and they used stone rollers to ensure that the lawn stayed flat and not lumpy. The bowling green therefore represented a Sisyphean undertaking—in the summer, by the time mowers reached the end they had to start over at the beginning.
And Washington wanted viewers from the Potomac to have a similarly spectacular view. He planted trees so that these perfectly framed the mansion house from the river. As you can see in the photo (the current grounds, as best possible, recreate the estate as Washington left it in 1799), the view to the mansion house is flanked on both sides by trees that obscured the house from view until a river traveler had the perfect view. Trees conceal the house until it peaks from behind their foliage at just the proper moment, revealing itself in all its intended grandeur.
It gets better. Washington thought that the natural hill interfered with this carefully constructed Potomac view and therefore had his enslaved workers shave down the hill in front of his back porch so that the landscape would not disturb the curated experience. You can see the curvature in the photo to the right. Look at how the slope dips down from left-to-right.
One final fun connection—there are about a dozen trees still on the Mount Vernon estate that were alive during Washington’s life. Washington planted some of these very explicitly, such as two tulip poplars (some of the very tallest trees on the estate) placed at identical sides of Washington’s driveway to achieve the greatest effect. My school, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, has a tulip poplar descended from one of Washington’s trees.
George Washington’s brilliance is thus best understood through the meticulously curated and managed Mount Vernon estate. This is not to be misunderstood as saying that creating the “perfect” mansion grounds were Washington’s most important accomplishments. Not at all. But Washington’s mind was at its most powerful—and, frankly, unmatched—when he worked as a manager and organizer. It is why a high school in Arkansas is honored to have a small piece of the Mount Vernon landscape on its campus.