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1st President of the United States, 1789-1797
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Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

Mount Vernon plantation was not only the beloved home of George Washington, the first president of the United States, but also the source of much of his wealth and the mark of his status as a leading member of the Virginia planter elite.  He lived here for over 40 years, happily returning home whenever his life of public service permitted.  Between 1759, when he moved to Mount Vernon with his bride, Martha, and his death in 1799, he expanded the plantation from 2,000 acres to 8,000 and the house from six rooms to 21. The house, with its long, two-story piazza overlooking the Potomac River, is one of the most instantly recognizable, and most copied, buildings in America.

The veneration of George Washington, the “Father of His Country,” attracted visitors to his home during his lifetime and continues today.  Under the leadership of Ann Pamela Cunningham, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association purchased Mount Vernon from the Washington family in 1858, restored the house in the country's first successful nationwide preservation effort, and opened the estate to the public in 1860.  Thanks to the continuing efforts of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, George Washington’s plantation continues to pay tribute to the nation’s first president.

Today meticulously restored to its appearance in 1799, the mansion preserves the legacy of this great American. Three rooms are on either side of the wide central hall on the first floor. The front parlor, music room, and the grand two-story large dining room are located north of the center hall. A small dining room, a first floor bedchamber, and Washington’s private study are on the south side of the house.  The second floor contains six bedrooms, including the master bedroom, with its narrow staircase leading directly to Washington’s study below.  The third floor has more bedchambers, including the small garret chamber to which Martha Washington retreated after her husband’s death.

Life of George Washington--The farmer
Life of George Washington--The farmer
painted by Junius Brutus Stearns c. 1853
Library of Congress

The grounds remain largely as Washington intended, an appropriate setting for a member of the plantation elite.  Pleasure grounds, gardens, and broad vistas extend from the Potomac River west to the original entrance road.  The smokehouse, workshops, stables, and other restored outbuildings, where slaves did much of the work of the estate, sit on a line north and south of the house, close enough for convenience but nearly invisible.  Other portions of the estate present the plantation as a living-history pioneer farm.  The tomb of George and Martha Washington lies to the south of the mansion.

Two modern facilities help tell the story of the real George Washington to visitors.  The Ford Orientation Center and the underground Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center include galleries and theaters, interactive displays, and over 700 artifacts.

In 1674, John Washington, the great-grandfather of George, obtained the land along the Potomac where Mount Vernon lies.  In 1726, Augustine, George’s father, acquired the property and probably constructed the first portion of the present mansion.  From about 1735 until 1738, Augustine and his family, including young George, resided there on what was then known as Hunting Creek Plantation. In 1740, Augustine deeded the estate to his eldest son, Lawrence, George's half-brother, who renamed the plantation Mount Vernon after Admiral Vernon, under whom he had served in the Caribbean.

George spent part of his youth at the estate with Lawrence, who had married into the powerful Fairfax family and became a mentor to his young half-brother.  It was here that George absorbed the planter ideals of honor and ambition.  Honor demanded demonstrations of merit before the whole community, speaking in public, training militias, giving generously to those below him, and showing his good taste through his personal appearance, his polite manners, and the design of his plantation.  Ambition was a virtue.  Fame and glory showed character and benefited both the man and the greater society.  It was these values that Washington first pursued and then came to embody.

George Washington’s first military assignment came in October 1753 when he delivered a British ultimatum to the French in the Ohio Valley. Its refusal precipitated the French and Indian War.  His subsequent years of military service earned George Washington high rank and respect as a military leader.  In 1754, George leased the property, then over 2,600 acres, from Lawrence's widow and upon her death in 1761, George inherited it.

From 1757 to 1758, Washington rebuilt the modest one and one half-story house at Mount Vernon into an impressive two and one half-story mansion and extensively redecorated the interior.  In 1759, Washington retired from the army and married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow and mother of two children.  Their combined property placed the couple high in the Tidewater planter aristocracy.  Between 1759 and 1774, he occupied most of his time becoming one of the largest landowners and richest and most innovative planters in Virginia.  He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for part of that time, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with British colonial policies.  Toward the end of this period, he began to enlarge the house, adding a new wing on the south, beginning work on a north wing, and remodeling the interior.

Selected as one of the Virginia representatives to the Continental Congress, George Washington left for Philadelphia in 1774.  Congress appointed him as commander in chief of the Continental Army the following year.  Although his military experience was limited, he had the intelligence, courage, and determination to avoid defeat long enough to turn his ragtag Continental Army into a force capable of meeting and defeating professional British troops on the open field.  On August 19, 1781, Washington marched south with his army to assist the French fleet against the British under Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The surrender of Cornwallis on October 19 ended the war. 

By this time, America recognized Washington as its first military hero, but in December 1783, he resigned his commission.  By renouncing power at a time when he probably could have been crowned king, he became internationally famous and set the first of many precedents for the new nation.  He happily returned to Mount Vernon and finished remodeling the house, adding the large dining room on the north, the curving arcades that connect the main house with the detached kitchen and servants’ hall, the two-story piazza, and the large octagonal cupola on the center of the roof.  Beveled pine blocks covered with paint mixed with sand, giving the appearance of stone, replaced the simple frame exterior.

Washington, appointed Commander in Chief
Washington, appointed Commander in Chief
c. 1876
Library of Congress

In the summer of 1787, he traveled to Philadelphia, where he served as president of the Constitutional Convention.  He departed once more when the Electoral College created by the newly adopted Federal Constitution elected him president in its first and only unanimous vote.   Because the Federal Government was located in New York and Philadelphia throughout his presidency, he was able to return to Mount Vernon only about twice a year.

Washington’s first term was largely devoted to organizing the executive branch and defining the relationship between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the new government created by the Constitution.  Always aware of the effects of his actions, he established precedent after precedent for the presidency as an institution.  He also worked with his Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to put the nation’s finances in order and selected a permanent site for the nation’s capital on the Potomac River, not far from Mount Vernon. His second term was troubled by the international tensions created by the war between England and revolutionary France and by growing partisanship within his own administration.  His support for the strict neutrality advocated by Hamilton kept the new United States out of war, but led to the resignation of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.  Washington hated political partisanship, but the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson soon sparked creation of the first two political parties, Federalist and Republican.

In 1798, Washington declined a third term, setting a precedent left unbroken until 1940 and now permanent in the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  He retired to his home at Mount Vernon in 1797 and died there two years later at the age of 67.  His wife lived there until she passed away in 1802. 

Plan your visit

Mount Vernon is located 7 miles south of Alexandria, at 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., in VA. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos.   Mount Vernon can be visited by car, bus/Metro, or boat. Mount Vernon offers a wide array of activities for visitors.  For more information visit the Mount Vernon website or call 703-780-2000.  It is open daily year-round according to the following schedule: April-August, 8:00am to 5:00pm; March, September, and October, 9:00am to 5:00pm; and November-February, 9:00am to 4:00pm.  An admission fee is charged.  Seasonal half-hour narrated boat tours along the Potomac River depart from the Mount Vernon dock; there is a separate charge for the boat tours.  Mount Vernon has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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