Unless you are a history enthusiast, you might not know Virginia is the state that has produced the most presidents, if going by birthplace. Some of those presidents, among our most famous, still have homes there that you can visit: George Washington (Mount Vernon), Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), James Madison (Montpelier), and James Monroe (Highland). There is another president whose home you can visit who is one of our least-known and lowest-ranked presidents: John Tyler (Sherwood Forest).
I recently led a tour where we visited Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier and Sherwood Forest. If you are interested in American history and are ever in Virginia, visits to Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier are a must. And a visit to Sherwood Forest is, interestingly, most rewarding also. In this article, I will cover Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon was the home of George and Martha Washington. Kept in excellent shape by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (no taxpayer money used), Mount Vernon is a pleasure to visit. With a wonderful view of the Potomac River, the home and surrounding buildings are much as they were when the Washingtons resided there.
Surprisingly, the home of our first president is named after a British admiral. So how did that happen? Well, Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence owned the estate (after having it deeded to him by George and Lawrence’s father, Augustine) and settled there in 1743. Lawrence had earlier served in the Caribbean under Adm. Edward Vernon on the HMS Princess Caroline in what was called the War of Jenkin’s Ear. Lawrence was so impressed with Admiral Vernon that when he returned from the war he renamed his home (originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation) after him. Lawrence died in 1752 and in 1754 George Washington leased Mount Vernon from Lawrence Washington’s widow. In 1761 Washington inherited Mount Vernon after the death of Lawrence’s widow. You would have thought later on after all they went through, and George leading the Continental Army and being the first president, George and Martha might have renamed the estate, but they never did. Lawrence’s death was deeply felt by George — when you visit the home today there is a portrait of Lawrence in Washington’s study on the first floor.
Getting to Mount Vernon is not particularly hard. It is about eight miles south of Alexandria, Va., on the south side of the Washington, D.C., metro area. (Alexandria was the Washingtons’ hometown.) The route is well marked. The main thing you will need to decide, if you are flying, is what airport to fly into and where to stay. You can fly into either Washington Dulles, farther away and larger, or Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Reagan National is near the Pentagon across the Potomac from downtown, and can be crowded. Driving out of Reagan National can also be a challenge. If you are planning on doing sightseeing around Virginia, you might consider flying into Richmond and staying away from the D.C. metro area. It is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Richmond to Mount Vernon, assuming traffic is moving on I-95.
There are many things to see, of course. In the main hallway, note the key to the Bastille. The key was given to Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette. Part of the Mount Vernon experience is the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. The displays are well done, and in one, you can see the dentures Washington wore. Contrary to popular belief, they were not made of wood. Made of human and cow teeth as well as elephant ivory, I can’t imagine how he tolerated them.
See the Mount Vernon website, mountvernon.org, for information — the virtual tour is very well done. George Washington’s words say it best: “I can truly say I had rather be at home at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of State and the representatives of every power in Europe.”
Doug McCormick is retired from the Air Force after spending 21 years as a space operator. He spent 14 years as a defense contractor supporting Air Force Space Command. He is now a tour guide and has started his own business, American History Tours, LLC, specializing in taking people to see locations associated with significant American history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.