Mount Vernon: George Washington’s Estate

Learn to Think Like a Historian at George Washington’s ‘House’

It was the day before the 2017 Presidential inauguration when a school bus filled with students from Lake Forest Academy in Illinois pulled into Mount Vernon for a visit.

Their mission was to explore the plantation that was home to the nation’s first president — and to learn about the treasures in the stacks of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

“These students are very interested in history and politics,” explains Dozois. “Being that we are in town to experience a historic occasion, we also thought it was essential that they see firsthand the places that they’d usually only read about in history books.”

What they saw throughout Mount Vernon didn’t disappoint Kayla, a high school junior: “I am realizing more and more how important it is to preserve history. Today, we had the chance to look up close at the leaders who lived during the American Revolution, and I think that’s really important because it makes it easier to understand what they did, and why they did it. I really enjoy getting to look into their daily lives.”

The students’ interest intensified during their visit to the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, which is adjacent to the first president’s home and plantation.

They were intrigued by a bas-relief featured in the library (shown above) is a large version of George Washington’s bookplate. Created by Washington, DC, area sculptor Raymond Kaskey, it displays the maxim “exitus acta probat” — “the outcome justifies the deed.”

But it was the $9.8 million book — the Acts of Congress — acquired by the Library in June of 2012, that impressed Caleb, a sophomore. “The artifacts that we were shown in the Library really stunned me, especially seeing that in the collection there is a book from Washington’s era that today is worth nearly $10 million. I think that’s amazing! I had no clue that such a book existed!”

That book is one of the most treasured items in the collection, explains Chief Librarian and Archivist Mark Santangelo (pictured right).

“Our copy is a replica, of course, which is why I can handle it,” Santangelo says. “Its value is tremendous, not only because of its financial value, but also because of what is inside the book, which is the president’s first draft of his own job description.”

Making it all the more valuable are Washington’s handwritten notes, penciled in the margins.

“This book is a tremendous asset to have in the Library, and it wasn’t very easy to acquire,” Santangelo admits, noting there was a gentleman overseas who wanted it as much as the Library. That’s when a bidding war began, with the Library being the victor. “We all knew it was essential to secure this book so that the American public could have access to it.”

The students’ enthusiasm about the Library’s manuscripts and artifacts came as a happy surprise to teachers Vaughn and Dozois.

“We didn’t realize the students would appreciate the scholarly area of the estate as much as they did the main house and plantation, which is more of a glimpse into living history,” Vaughn says with a smile. “But the students were really curious to see what a presidential library looks like and even more intrigued by the historical importance of the items in the collection.”

Seeing students engaged and excited on their tour of the Library is always a thrill for the vice president for education at the Library, Allison Wickens (pictured right).

“The 45,000 square-foot facility that safeguards Washington’s books and manuscripts was built to be a resource for scholars, students, and all those interested in George Washington, Colonial America, and the Revolutionary and founding eras,” she says.

“The Library has more than 1,500 18th-century books, and thousands of important 19th-century newspapers, manuscripts, and documents,” she adds. “And, it serves as a scholarly retreat, creates educational outreach programs, and provides seminars and training programs with a special focus on Washington’s leadership. The Library emphasizes educational outreach, touching the lives of students, teachers, and scholars around the world.”

Most importantly, she notes, visitors of all ages are welcome to take a tour, and do research in the beautifully appointed main research area, the Karen Buchwald Wright Reading Room (pictured right).

“Each year, hundreds of students and adults experience what it’s like to be a researcher,” she says. “We don’t care at what age level they are. In fact, we love to have students come and utilize the collection, whether it’s a digital version or our primary resources. We can put so much information about George Washington at the fingertips of so many people, and we’re doing our best to make that access as seamless as possible.”

Here’s a little bit of history about the Library at Mount Vernon:

  • In 1986, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) broadened its vision beyond the preservation of Mount Vernon, to include Washington’s life, achievements, and character.
  • By 2010, that mission had expanded to the construction of a new research library. The MVLA announced the creation of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to advance the appreciation/ understanding of George Washington.
  • The Library was funded in part by a gift of $38 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the largest received in the history of the MVLA.
  • The Campaign for the Library — with Gay Hart Gaines, the vice regent for Florida, as chair — set an ambitious goal: to raise $100 million to construct the Library.
  • The Campaign exceeded its goal; it raised $106.4 million by June 2013 — all provided by private donors. Groundbreaking took place in April 2011, and the Library opened on Sept. 27, 2013.

Click here to learn more about the Library.

Click here to watch our interview with the founding director of Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library, Dr. Douglas Bradburn.

Mount Vernon’s Curt Viebranz Introduces Us to the Real George and Martha Washington

potomacBy David Bruce Smith
The Grateful American™ Foundation

When the sun would set along the Potomac River, Martha and George Washington could invariably be found sipping cocktails on the veranda of their Virginia home. As they enjoyed a cool gin and tonic, they’d talk about the day’s events and watch the children who lived with them play on the grass.

So it was an honor for me and my co-host, Hope Katz Gibbs, to sit recently on that very porch with Curt Viebranz, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and learn more about the Washingtons.

Viebranz was appointed to his post at Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in September 2012. An experienced media executive and entrepreneur with a passion for American history and a longstanding commitment to community service, Viebranz has more than 20 years of experience at major multinational Internet and cable enterprises. Prior to his appointment at Mount Vernon, he was a co-founder and chairman of Korrelate, Inc., which provides insights and analytics on web advertising.

His earlier experience includes serving as president of HBO International, the global arm of Time Warner’s Home Box Office unit, and he was the first president of Time Inc. Multimedia. He was also president of Time Inc. Europe and HBO Video. Following his career at Time Warner, Viebranz helped launch and grow several media-related start-ups, and after he joined AOL in 2007 he oversaw advertising sales and strategy for all of AOL’s owned and operated sites.

Scroll down for our Q&A with Viebranz, who shared a lot of interesting facts about our nation’s first presidential couple. Here’s to restoring enthusiasm in American history for kids, and their parents, too.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Curt, it’s a pleasure to be sitting here on this back porch, just as the sun is setting. You can almost imagine that George and Martha Washington are here as well. Tell us about the magnificent plantation that Mount Vernon is — and how a handful of women actually ensured that millions of visitors annually would be able to visit and enjoy the estate.

Curt Viebranz: When the home was built originally in the early 1730s, it was called Little Huntington Creek. Washington’s half brother, Lawrence, renamed the estate Mount Vernon, in recognition of the incredible view here by the promontory, and also in tribute to Admiral Vernon, whom he served under in the US Navy.

Lawrence died in his early 30s of tuberculosis, and because none of his and his wife’s four children survived childhood, when his widow died, George Washington ultimately inherited the house from her. It was Washington who built the home we see here now.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Was Washington’s remodeling style similar to what Jefferson did at Monticello — continually taking things down and building them back up?

Curt Viebranz: No, not as much as Jefferson did. At Mount Vernon, Washington focused more on building additions to what had been a very modest home.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What would it have been like out here in the evening?

Curt Viebranz: In truth, he was away from the estate for 16 years as the head of the US Army and then as the country’s first president. And when he was here, he was a very active plantation owner, so he was outside here working all the time.

David Bruce Smith: Knowing what you know about George Washington, is he knowable?

Curt Viebranz: Joe Ellis, author of “His Excellency: George Washington,” the 2005 best-selling biography of Washington, would say that he is like a man on the moon — much beloved, but not well understood. But I think that if you really start to dig deep enough, you can begin to understand him more as a human being, and you will become even more impressed by the decisions he made, especially his willingness to give up power for the good of others and the national good.

David Bruce Smith: Okay, I want to take a little poetic license here. If George Washington was either your brother or your best friend, how would you describe him?

Curt Viebranz: I would say dashing — nearly 6’ 3”, and probably a head taller than most people of his time. He was also a great dancer; there is a side to him that enjoyed a good time.

David Bruce Smith: Let’s not leave Martha out. Can you rate her tenure as first lady?

Curt Viebranz: By the time you reach 1789, when George Washington began his first term as the country’s first president, Martha Washington clearly is interested in returning to Mount Vernon. I think she is weary of the public life, and sees perhaps that it has taken a toll on Washington, so she goes to Philadelphia reluctantly but realizing she needs to do that for the good of the country.

David Bruce Smith: Do we know much about Martha and George as a couple?

Curt Viebranz: That’s a great question. They spent long periods of time away from each other, and unfortunately, as you know, Martha chose to burn most of their letters. We do have a letter from George Washington to Martha during the Revolutionary Way that says, “I retain an unalterable affection for you that no time can diminish.” So it is clear that they love each other a great deal.

I think she was his anchor. She understood that many times there were sacrifices that had to be made for the greater good even though she probably did not want Washington to take over as the president of the United States and pick up and go to Philadelphia. There were lots of protocols and conventions that had come down from Europe that she had to accept, for example, not being able to dine in private homes with friends.

She accepted these restrictions for him. She was incredibly devoted, including following him to many of the camps he was stationed at during the Revolutionary War. She was much beloved for her efforts to help out the colonist-soldiers, who considered her a woman of the people.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Thank you so much for being with us. Click here to learn more about George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

About the Grateful American™ Series

The Grateful American™ Series is an interactive, multimedia educational project created by the Grateful American™ Foundation. The brainchild of DC-based author and publisher David Bruce Smith, it is designed to restore enthusiasm in American history for kids and adults.

Its website, which launched on July 4, 2014, is updated each month with articles, radio podcasts, and TV episodes featuring interviews with the directors of popular presidential and historic homes, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The Grateful American™ TV Show is hosted by Smith and series executive producer Hope Katz Gibbs, president of the Inkandescent Publishing Company and Inkandescent Public Relations.

Disclaimer: The photos of the historic figures pictured in the videos have been provided courtesy of the presidential and historic homes and museums depicted, as well from the authors and historians, and / or are under Creative Commons usage. The Grateful American™ Series understands that these images are in the public domain and have no known copyright restrictions.