Shortly before George Washington retired as president in 1797, two of his cherished house slaves — Martha's helper Oney Judge and their chef, Hercules — ran away. Tracked down at Washington's order, Oney tried to set strict conditions for her return, which the old general refused. As for Hercules, he just disappeared.
Despite Washington's indignation over the "disloyalty" of his "Negroes," slavery was one of the few subjects in his life that the first president was ambivalent about. Financially he knew that he and Martha could not run the presidential house in Philadelphia or his beloved estate Mt. Vernon in Virginia without their several hundred slaves. But in his later years, Washington came to hate slavery for dividing families and undermining the best ideals of the Revolution.
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which in 1858 heroically rescued Washington's by then weedy, decaying estate (the front portico was being held up by a sailboat's mast), was itself long ambivalent about how to treat the subject — especially during the civil-rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
This month a replicated Mt. Vernon slave cabin — home to Washington's slaves Silla and Slamin Joe and their six children — will open, one of the final touches on a $100 million effort to augment Washington's mansion and gardens with exhibits providing context for Americans who, with each passing generation, sadly seem to know less and less about their first president.
The main museum complex, inaugurated last fall, is a triumph. Elegantly tucked underneath a four-acre Hogg Island sheep pasture (the breed was named for a 17th-century English settlement in Virginia), it shows off long-undisplayed objects like the Washingtons' books, jewelry and clothing (such as Martha's gold wedding gown and purple satin shoes). These help explain how fiercely Washington sought to better his fortunes, including marrying a wealthy widow.
Aiming "to dispel the elder statesman version" of the stern Gilbert Stuart portraits and the image on the dollar bill, there are full-scale models of Washington as a young surveyor, the vigorous hero of the Revolutionary War atop his horse Blueskin, and taking his first presidential oath in a deliberately plebian brown broadcloth suit.
One theater offers the experience of fighting the British with artificial fog and snow, as cannon booms seemingly shake the ground. Nearby a lifelike sick soldier wheezes in his hut at Valley Forge. Some dioramas are geared specifically to the one third of Mt. Vernon's million annual visitors who are schoolchildren — especially the use of CSI-type forensic technology to show what Washington really looked like.
Mt. Vernon's new approach is scarcely a muckraking view of Washington. But the traditional reverence has been relaxed enough to explore such subjects as the general's lifelong "dental agonies" and his dentures, which, contrary to urban legend, were constructed not from wood but teeth removed from animals and, it is thought, from several of Washington's slaves.
Elsewhere on the estate you can now visit Washington's restored private distillery, to which he devoted considerable and innovative thought, producing 11,000 gallons of whisky the year he died.
Were the Father of His Country to come back to life, he would no doubt be delighted to know his national experiment was thriving two centuries later — and puzzled that contemporary Americans should be intrigued by trivial matters like a great man's false teeth. He would be undeniably curious to know how the torturous issue of slavery resolved itself, both in America and at Mt. Vernon.
Pained by his family's addiction to slave labor, Washington arranged for his own enslaved legions to be liberated on his passing, leaving Martha's slaves to be shackled until her own death. Evidently it did not occur to him that his tearful widow might be terrified that her slaves had a strong vested interest in her early demise. She freed them prematurely, on New Year's Day 1801. Thus during the year before Martha's death in 1802, Mt. Vernon, without proper care, started the tragic, rapid decline that showed once and for all how essential the ugly institution of slavery had been to the life of Washington's beloved estate.
And should a reborn George Washington stroll through the new Mt. Vernon museum, he would probably be brought up short to find displayed, close to scenes of his Revolutionary victories, an oil painting of someone he considered no more than a bit player in his drama. The portrait, clearly of a slave, is thought to be of Hercules.