During my long Presidents’ Day weekend, I’ve been thinking about “George Washington’s Legacy of Leadership,” a symposium that the Sweet Briar Alumnae Association hosted at Mount Vernon. Fittingly, the symposium was held on my grandmother’s birthday: March 9, 2009.
In the months prior to the trip, we read several books about George, Martha and Mount Vernon. We had definitely done our homework for this excursion to northern Virginia. The day was even more special because Tait joined us, treated to the program as a Christmas present from her husband.
James Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon, started the day by talking about Washington’s achievements in architecture, horticulture and a variety of business ventures ranging from fishing to distilling whiskey. Mr. Rees shared examples of popular items in Mount Vernon’s collection, from Washington’s sunglasses to his fishing tackle box, used to catch herring in the Potomac River. He also talked about the renovation of Washington’s distillery and how his original manuscript record book was used to re-create his recipe for whiskey (you can buy small bottles of the whiskey in Mount Vernon’s gift shop).
Major General William K. Suter, clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, described how Washington displayed characteristics of a successful military leader, such as his commitment to duty, his ability to influence people and his advice to his troops to “saw the wood in front of you” and not be distracted by an unsettling environment. Barbara Perry, a Sweet Briar government professor, talked about how Washington demonstrated many of the criteria of a great leader, such as honesty, ambition, courage, self-confidence, self-control, devotion to work, judgment and humility.
After lunch in the Mount Vernon Inn (which included peanut soup, one of my favorite Virginia dishes), we went on a tour of the mansion. Washington’s study contains over 1,000 titles that were in his library, such as books on scientific farming, instructions on running a grist mill, and The Poems of Ossian, The Son of Fingal, a popular book of the day by James Macpherson. Walking through the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, we saw furnishings, china, clothing, jewelry, rare books and manuscripts, and other personal effects of the Washington family – including one of Martha’s original needlepoint shell-design chair cushions and a set of Washington’s dentures.
During our trip, we also visited Woodlawn, the plantation the Washingtons gave their granddaughter, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, as a wedding present, and Kenmore, the Fredericksburg home of Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis. Did you know that Reagan National Airport is built on the site of another Custis plantation? Abingdon was the home of John Parke Custis, Washington’s adopted stepson; it was also Nelly Custis’s birthplace. You can still catch a glimpse of portions of Abingdon’s brick building foundations between a couple of parking garages at the airport.