A Trip to Mount Vernon

February 19th, 2013

Yesterday, on George Washington’s birthday holiday, hundreds of Washington admirers flocked to Washington’s home at Mount Vernon to celebrate the life of our first president—whose actual birthday, by the way, is coming up on Friday. A recurring theme of our recent posts on Washington has been to ask the question: How are we, 200 years removed, to think about Washington?

Writing in 1880, Henry Brooks Adams (1838–1918) explored this question, for even then not everyone in America stood in awe of George Washington. As the country prospered and as manners became more democratic, here and there envy and resentment took aim at his elevated standing. Some prominent people who might have esteemed him begrudged his reputation for moral excellence, inasmuch as it stood as a permanent rebuke to their own moral weakness. The resulting habit of debunking the great man, today a common practice, can already be seen in our holiday book’s selection from Adams’ Democracy: An American Novel. Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, is best known for his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, as well as for the salon he and Mrs. Adams hosted in Washington, DC, where the personal and the political mixed at the highest level. In this selection, a group of the sort that would have gathered at the Adamses take a boat trip down the Potomac to visit Mount Vernon. Though some of the characters in the novel, with their regard for titles, may seem less than democratic, their gossip and their disparagement of Washington and Mount Vernon show both their leveling tendencies and the belief that their life is superior to that of heroes past.

As you read the story, here are some discussion questions to raise with your students: Do you find yourself sympathetic to any of the characters in Adams’ narrative? If so, to whom and why? With which character, if any, do you think the author sympathizes? Do you think that Adams endorses the debunking of Washington, or is he in fact ridiculing it? What do you think of these remarks by Senator Ratcliffe: “Public men cannot be dressing themselves to-day in Washington’s old clothes. If Washington were President today, he would have to learn our ways or lose his next election. . . . If virtue won’t answer our purpose, we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office, and this was as true in Washington’s day as it is now, and always will be”? If Ratcliffe is right about American politics, what then would you say about Washington’s greatness?

In February the weather became warmer and summer-like. In Virginia there comes often at this season a deceptive gleam of summer, slipping in between heavy storm-clouds of sleet and snow; days and sometimes weeks when the temperature is like June; when the earliest plants begin to show their hardy flowers, and when the bare branches of the forest trees alone protest against the conduct of the seasons. Then men and women are languid; life seems, as in Italy, sensuous and glowing with colour; one is conscious of walking in an atmosphere that is warm, palpable, radiant with possibilities; a delicate haze hangs over Arlington, and softens even the harsh white glare of the Capitol; the struggle of existence seems to abate; Lent throws its calm shadow over society; and youthful diplomatists, unconscious of their danger, are lured into asking foolish girls to marry them; the blood thaws in the heart and flows out into the veins, like the rills of sparkling water that trickle from every lump of ice or snow, as though all the ice and snow on earth, and all the hardness of heart, all the heresy and schism, all the works of the devil, had yielded to the force of love and to the fresh warmth of innocent, lamb-like, confiding virtue. In such a world there should be no guile—but there is a great deal of it notwithstanding. Indeed, at no other season is there so much. This is the moment when the two whited sepulchres at either end of the Avenue reek with the thick atmosphere of bargain and sale. The old is going; the new is coming. Wealth, office, power are at auction. Who bids highest? who hates with most venom? who intrigues with most skill? who has done the dirtiest, the meanest, the darkest, and the most, political work? He shall have his reward.

Senator Ratcliffe was absorbed and ill at ease. A swarm of applicants for office dogged his steps and beleaguered his rooms in quest of his endorsement of their paper characters. The new President was to arrive on Monday. Intrigues and combinations, of which the Senator was the soul, were all alive, awaiting this arrival. Newspaper correspondents pestered him with questions. Brother senators called him to conferences. His mind was pre-occupied with his own interests. One might have supposed that, at this instant, nothing could have drawn him away from the political gaming-table, and yet when Mrs. Lee remarked that she was going to Mount Vernon on Saturday with a little party, including the British Minister and an Irish gentleman staying as a guest at the British Legation, the Senator surprised her by expressing a strong wish to join them. He explained that, as the political lead was no longer in his hands, the chances were nine in ten that if he stirred at all he should make a blunder; that his friends expected him to do something when, in fact, nothing could be done; that every preparation had already been made, and that for him to go on an excursion to Mount Vernon, at this moment, with the British Minister, was, on the whole, about the best use he could make of his time, since it would hide him for one day at least.

Lord Skye had fallen into the habit of consulting Mrs. Lee when his own social resources were low, and it was she who had suggested this party to Mount Vernon, with Carrington for a guide and Mr. Gore for variety, to occupy the time of the Irish friend whom Lord Skye was bravely entertaining. This gentleman, who bore the title of Dunbeg, was a dilapidated peer, neither wealthy nor famous. Lord Skye brought him to call on Mrs. Lee, and in some sort put him under her care. He was young, not ill-looking, quite intelligent, rather too fond of facts, and not quick at humour. He was given to smiling in a deprecatory way, and when he talked, he was either absent or excited; he made vague blunders, and then smiled in deprecation of offence, or his words blocked their own path in their rush. Perhaps his manner was a little ridiculous, but he had a good heart, a good head, and a title. He found favour in the eyes of Sybil and Victoria Dare, who declined to admit other women to the party, although they offered no objection to Mr. Ratcliffe’s admission. As for Lord Dunbeg, he was an enthusiastic admirer of General Washington, and, as he privately intimated, eager to study phases of American society. He was delighted to go with a small party, and Miss Dare secretly promised herself that she would show him a phase.

Click here to read the rest of Henry Adams’s story “A Trip to Mount Vernon.”

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