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Washington's Birthday — In Search of the Real George Washington

Although Washington's face may still be the most familiar of any figure in American history, recent surveys have revealed that the American people are rapidly losing touch with the man behind the image. Why? Some of the reasons are unmistakably clear. Washington’s coverage in school textbooks has dropped to an all-time low, his portrait has disappeared from classroom walls, and George Washington’s Birthday has been pushed aside for “Presidents Day.”

But in some ways, the personality of Washington also intensifies the challenge of making him accessible and relevant to new generations. Although he was one of the most famous men in America from his early twenties, when his brash actions on the battlefield ignited the French and Indian War, until he died in his own bed at Mount Vernon at age 67, Washington protected his privacy and maintained a degree of formality that flies in the face of modern culture. It does not help that, soon after he died, Martha Washington burned hundreds – if not thousands – of letters that she and her husband exchanged.

Still, there is plenty of documentation that survives from the founding era to illuminate the enigmatic personality of “The Father of Our Country.”  Recent books about Washington, including His Excellency by Joseph Ellis and 1776 by David McCullough, have confirmed his status as the truly indispensable leader of the period. In a recent poll of scholars conducted by the Wall Street Journal, Washington was once again named the best president in American history, edging out Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

But Washington did not fare nearly as well in another poll, this one conducted with “the average man on the street.” Washington fell from first to seventh place, not only behind Lincoln and Roosevelt, but also Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  It is clear to us at Mount Vernon that the pubic at large does not see George Washington as relevant to their lives.  In fact, for several years we have found that the average visitor to Washington’s home knows only rudimentary information about the man.  Spurred by this disconcerting proliferation of historical ignorance, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has taken action.

On October 27, 2006, we cut the ribbon on the largest and most dynamic new facilities ever built on George Washington’s estate.  More than a decade of planning, fundraising, and construction went into the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. Almost 70,000 square feet of new space embraces 25 galleries and theaters, a distance-learning classroom, and Mount Vernon’s first action-adventure movie.  It is an exciting complex that seeks to captivate, educate, and inspire all ages.

Almost every nook and cranny addresses a key question that has been posed by everyone from the youngest schoolchild to the most seasoned scholar for more than two centuries:  Who was the real George Washington?  We need to reconnect the American people to that real man. Once they get to know what he was really like as a living, breathing human being – not a myth or an icon – they will come to understand why his leadership and character are still worth emulating today.  And why he, of all the founding fathers, deserves a holiday set aside to honor his sacrifices and accomplishments. On behalf of all of us at Mount Vernon, I wish you a happy George Washington’s Birthday, and hope that you’ll come see us – and him – soon.