Broadcast: July 12, 2004
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Doug Johnson.
And I’m Gwen Outen. Today we visit Mount Vernon, the home of the first president of the United States, George Washington.
George Washington lived at Mount Vernon in Virginia for more than forty-five years. The big wooden house is twenty-four kilometers south of America's capital city named in his honor.
George Washington was born in seventeen-thirty-two. Before he became president, he commanded the troops who won the American Revolution against Britain. He helped create the United States of America. Some historians say the nation would not exist if George Washington had never lived.
Washington helped choose where to build the new capital city and a house for the president. Yet he is the only president who never lived in the White House. It was completed after he left office. He lived in New York and later Philadelphia while president. But Mount Vernon was always important to him.
Today it remains an important place in history for a lot of people who visit Washington, D.C., and nearby areas.
George Washington helped design Mount Vernon. He died there in seventeen-ninety-nine. The property seems not too much different today. But there are big plans for the two-hundred hectares of present-day Mount Vernon. The goal is to make the hero of long ago more meaningful to the people of today.
The group that operates Mount Vernon sought the plans. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association noted studies showing that young people know little about George Washington. Several years ago, the association decided to try to make him more real to visitors. The new building project resulted from that decision.
Eighty-five million dollars in gifts have been promised for the expansion. The money is creating a center to welcome visitors to Mount Vernon. An education center and an underground museum also are being built.
At the education center, visitors will be able to use interactive devices to see information and images. A new library will contain electronic versions of Washington’s papers and letters. The University of Virginia has those papers. The university is helping to produce the online collection.
Mount Vernon director James Rees says three life-size statues of Washington will stand in the education center. One will represent him as a young explorer and land recorder. Another will show Washington as commander of the Continental Army during the revolution against England. A third statue will represent him as president. He led the new United States from seventeen-eighty-nine to seventeen-ninety-seven.
Production will begin soon on a short movie about Washington. Visitors will see it in a new Mount Vernon theater. People will be introduced to George Washington as a man of action as well as a landowner and farmer. Visitors will also see a new exhibit of Washington and his soldiers crossing the Delaware River.
The exhibit will show America’s colonial commander on his way to winning a surprise victory in New Jersey. The Battle of Trenton was one of the turning points of the American Revolution. The presentation will seem very real. Man-made snow will even fall on visitors.
Many things at Mount Vernon will remain the same after the additions. Guides will still wear clothing of Washington’s time. They will tell visitors about his daily life. And they will explain his service to America.
George Washington spent many years away from his home. In seventeen-seventy-five, he took command of the Continental Army of the American colonies. After the victory, some people wanted him to be president for life. Or even king. But Washington said Americans had fought for freedom from such rulers.
He was elected president two times without opposition. He was offered a third term. But he refused. He wanted to return to the life he had led at Mount Vernon before the war.
And that is what he did. George Washington returned to Mount Vernon. During those last years, he led the life of a rich farmer. He directed the work of five farms.
He and his wife Martha often invited friends for meals in the dining room at Mount Vernon. The Washingtons also provided sleeping rooms and food for travelers. Very few hotels existed then. So George and Martha Washington offered a place to stay for about six-hundred visitors a year. Many were strangers.
But George Washington was able to enjoy retirement at Mount Vernon for less than three years. In seventeen-ninety-nine, the former president became sick. Modern doctors believe he died of a severe infection. He was sixty-seven years old.
Citizens mourned. The United States had declared its independence on July fourth, seventeen-seventy-six. The country was still very young. People felt a terrible loss at the death of their revolutionary war hero and first president.
More than seven-hundred speakers throughout the country honored him. Towns and villages held funeral marches. Businesses were closed for days. Bells rang and rang.
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Now we continue with our visit to Mount Vernon. The property contains the family home and smaller buildings. Visitors also see farming areas and nature paths. A green hillside leads down to the Potomac River. A guide suggests you start in the main house. It is three floors high. George Washington was responsible for much of the design.
His office is on the ground level. It contains many of his books. This is the room where George Washington planned the farm activities on his land. It is also where he wrote to other leaders. One writer called this room “the center of political intelligence for the new world.”
Another guide leads you up the steps to the second and third floors of the main house. Mount Vernon contains eight sleeping rooms. George and Martha Washington needed all these for their visitors. Above the bedrooms is a cupola, a small structure with windows on all sides. Washington designed this so hot summer air would escape from inside the house.
More than three-hundred African slaves lived and worked at Mount Vernon. Slaves and some paid workers operated George Washington's five farms. Together, the farms covered more than one-thousand hectares. Other slaves built houses and furniture. Still others cooked and performed housekeeping duties. Visitors can see the burial places of slaves at Mount Vernon.
Even in George Washington's time, there was great debate about slavery. Washington came to disapprove of slavery as he grew older. He was the only one of the men known as the Founding Fathers of the country to free his slaves. He ordered that his slaves be freed after he and his wife died. Older slaves received payments for years after that.
Much is said about George Washington the hero. But there is also the argument today that not enough is said about George Washington the slave owner.
After George and Martha Washington died, Mount Vernon was given to other family members. By the eighteen-fifties, the person who owned it did not have enough money to keep it in good condition. He offered to sell Mount Vernon to Virginia or to the federal government. Both said no.
That is when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association rescued the home. The group bought the property with money it collected. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has made a number of changes over the years. Many visitors praise the organization for keeping the historical spirit of Mount Vernon while improving the property.
Now, however, some people question if that spirit will survive the current changes. They say Mount Vernon could seem too modern. Others disagree. They want people to think of George Washington as more than just a name in a history book.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Gwen Outen.
And I’m Doug Johnson. You can visit Mount Vernon on the Internet at mountvernon.org. And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.