When you ponder whether vast impersonal forces or great individuals shape history most, ask yourself what America would look like had there been no George Washington. What if the colonists had had no virtuoso general who could inspire ordinary men to hold out for six starving years of guerrilla war and, with his ragged army down to fewer troops than would fill Madison Square Garden, could embolden them to cross the Delaware River in the driving snow on Christmas Eve 1776 and win the battles of Trenton and Princeton, which marked the turning point of the Revolution? What if no such model of republican virtue had calmly presided over the Constitutional Convention, infusing the delegates with the spirit of patriotic compromise? What if some other man — even of the stature of John Adams or Thomas Jefferson — had had to invent the office of the presidency as he went along? Just recall the second and third presidents’ terms in office and take a guess.
Such thoughts fill your mind when you visit Mount Vernon, the outward embodiment of its gentleman-architect’s ideals. It was his hobby and his passion, enlarged and improved over 30 years from the late 1750s until the late 1780s, and planned and dreamed about during lulls between battles of the French and Indian War and the Revolution. His spirit comfortingly haunts the place, and, if you look closely, you can see how his self-conception changed over the decades. Fresh from the French and Indian War, and smarting from the condescension of regular British officers to a mere colonial, he made his first enlargement of his father’s house, which he had inherited from his half brother, and filled it with every appurtenance that distinguishes a gentleman, from Palladian paneling and pilasters within to a pedimented front door and wooden siding beveled and painted to look like stone without. Silverware and gilt-framed mirrors bore the griffin crest of his English ancestors, though he had no idea where exactly they hailed from.
Fully enlarged when Washington returned from the Constitutional Convention, Mount Vernon still didn’t look like a great English country house, except for the grand new dining room with light flooding in through its huge Palladian window onto the severely symmetrical classicism of its elegantly restrained furnishings. Yes, it now boasted a stately pediment and cupola, but they are endearingly off-center, for the general, with an almost Burkean conservatism, had chosen to retain the cozy interior plan of the original house, with its relatively small rooms, low ceilings, and corner fireplaces, resulting in a façade with the windows asymmetrically placed. He created something between a manor and a farmhouse, an abode for a republican citizen in a style that the modern classical architect Allan Greenberg calls the “architecture of democracy.”
Washington’s great innovation is the two-story-high veranda running the full length of the house’s river side. Sitting there brings to mind the words of the prophet Micah that the Founding Father often quoted to explain that he was fighting a war to build a republic where men “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.” Doubtless, Washington sat there thinking the same thoughts.