What would George Washington think?

Published 10:15 am Thursday, July 5, 2012

Column: Kathleen Parker, A Little Sanity

As we celebrate our nation’s independence midway through a year of rabid presidential politics, it is refreshing to reflect upon our first president, the hero of America’s revolution and commander in chief upon our liberation from King George.

Kathleen Parker

To say that they don’t make them like George Washington anymore is to insult understatement. But those who admire him have a duty, today of all days, to remember him before he is forgotten by younger generations who, through no fault of their own, have no sense of him today. They haven’t been taught, and the shame of this belongs to all, with a few notable exceptions.

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Among these is a handful of ladies (and no, copy editors, you may not change “ladies” to “women”) who daily strive to keep Washington’s name and legacy in the dimming lights of history. Unheralded and largely unknown, they deserve recognition for their valiant and extravagant efforts to preserve one of America’s most valuable assets, including the original ruminations of its greatest thinkers.

These would be the members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, who volunteer their time and talents — and open their own wallets — to maintain Washington’s home on the Potomac. These efforts have been shepherded the past 30 years by one brave and hearty James Rees (think of having a couple dozen powerful women as your boss), who, like Washington, is also reserved and humble of spirit. To everyone’s dismay, Rees, 60, recently retired as CEO, owing to a debilitating illness that has taken him too soon from his venerable toils.

During his 30 years at Mount Vernon, Rees helped lead its transformation from a historic house to a major national attraction, increasing its endowment from just $4 million in 1984 to more than $125 million today, and recently oversaw the groundbreaking for the estate’s newest project — a presidential library that will offer fellowships to scholars in residence as well as safeguard Washington’s books and papers.

Latest to the collection is Washington’s original copy of the “Acts of Congress,” a 106-page volume that contains his personal copy of the Constitution, a draft of the Bill of Rights, and other documents pertaining to early acts of the new Congress. Washington’s own handwritten scribbles are penciled in the margins.

The Mount Vernon ladies captured the book in a Christie’s bidding war using private funds. Unbeknownst to most visitors to Mount Vernon — and certainly the millions who don’t know it exists — Washington’s home was saved and is maintained without a penny of public funds. (Disclosure: I serve on the Mount Vernon advisory board, a collection of private citizens who meet twice a year to offer advice, which the ladies are utterly free to ignore.)

The ladies’ association is a lesson in volunteerism worthy of its own chapter. The association was formed in 1853 by South Carolina native Ann Pamela Cunningham, whose mother had noticed a large, dilapidated house perched on a hill along the Potomac River and was outraged to learn it was Washington’s home. Inspired by her mother, Cunningham reached out to Southern women to raise funds to buy the estate and, in 1860, open it to the public, thus beginning a 152-year-old tradition.

Since then, more than 80 million have visited the house and grounds, which include an underground museum (so as not to mar the landscape), gardens, a slave burial ground, as well as the final resting place of George and Martha Washington. Even the opposite shore of the Potomac has been preserved so that visitors can enjoy the same view that Washington did.

The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, named for its most generous donor, is an overdue addition to Washington’s home. In a time of self-reverential politicians and presidential libraries erected as monuments to ego, it is odd if also characteristic that the first president had none. Just as he resisted becoming the nation’s first president, feeling himself unworthy, he would have found a library in his honor, indulging today’s vernacular, “over the top.”

Washington no doubt would be disappointed by the boastful tenor and dishonest content of today’s political debate, though he was surely familiar with the rowdy passions that drive it. Thanks to the ladies of Mount Vernon — and to the lovely James Rees — Americans can revisit those passions on the very grounds Washington paced, and perhaps find inspiration there to engage in a more civil discourse, surely not the least among Washington’s legacies.


Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.