The Tombs at Mount Vernon
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Throughout its history as a cultural shrine, Mount Vernon has been the site of numerous visits from prominent politicians, heads of state, and world leaders.
In the years of the early republic, Washington’s tomb served as an important site of pilgrimage. One of the earliest prominent visitors to Washington’s tomb was his close friend, colleague and military partner during the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. Writing in 1827, Lafayette’s personal secretary described a visit to Washington’s tomb, explaining that: "Lafayette descended alone in the vault, and a few minutes thereafter reappeared, with his eyes overflowing with tears. He took his son and me by the hand, and led us into the tomb... We knelt reverentially near his coffin, which we respectfully saluted with our lips; rising, we mingled our tears with his.” Lafayette visited Mount Vernon several times during 1824 and 1825 as part of his celebrated Triumphal Tour of America. However, the Nathaniel Currier print shown here is inaccurate, as Lafayette’s visit to Mount Vernon occurred thirteen years before Washington’s re-internment in the New Tomb which is shown in the print. Lafayette instead would have paid his respects to Washington at his original burial spot.
Visits to the tomb were also utilized as a way to promote the preservation efforts of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in the organization’s early years. This image, originally published in Harper’s Weekly, accompanied an article describing a fundraiser held at Mount Vernon that included members of Congress as well as the press. The visit was intended to allow guests to testify to the country the need “to come forward and assist in placing that house and tomb of Washington, now the property of the citizens of the United States, in such order and keeping as is manifestly due to his memory and themselves.”
As the United States descended towards civil war, Mount Vernon remained a location for prominent visitors to pay homage. On October 5, 1860, President James Buchanan accompanied British Prince Albert (the future King Edward VII) to Mount Vernon, where the Prince received a tour and visited Washington’s tomb. The trip was covered extensively by the British press, including reporting by The Times of London correspondent Nicholas A. Woods. Writing about the visit to Mount Vernon, Woods provided a detailed account of the deteriorating state Mount Vernon. In his description of the tomb, Woods (somewhat hyperbolously) observed that “No pious care seems to have ever tended this neglected grave. . .It is here alone in its glory, uncared for, unvisited, unwatched, with the night-wind for its only mourner sighing through the waste of trees, and strewing the dead brown leaves like ashes before the tomb. Such is the grave of Washington!” Woods wryly noted the historic irony of the event, explaining that there was “something grandly suggestive of historical retribution in the reverential awe of the Prince of Wales, the great-grandson of George III, standing bareheaded at the foot of the coffin of Washington.”
Visits by prominent individuals continued into the twentieth century. In 1916, Thomas Edison proposed to personally install electricity in the Mount Vernon mansion. Edison offered to build a system powered by generator-fed storage batteries with a “guarantee of absolute safety.” The proposal, however, did not come without some controversy. As described by the organization’s 1916 annual report, “The proposed installation of electricity at Mount Vernon came as a shock to some of the Vice Regents, seeming to be most incongruous in this antique home where everything in the way of colonial customs is preserved as far as possible.” Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Vice Regent for California, paid for the installation and helped convince other Vice Regents that electricity was a safer alternative to kerosene lamps and candles. On the day this photograph was taken at the tomb, Edison had come to visit to “inspect the power-plant and lighting system he had designed for Mount Vernon.”
Remarkably, King George VI’s visit to the United States in June 1939 was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever been to America. The visit was part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s desire to ensure close relations between the two countries as Europe descended towards war, while also building public support for increased American aid to Great Britain. On the second day of the royal visit, the King and Queen sailed the Potomac River on the presidential yacht and visited Mount Vernon where they laid a wreath at the tomb, before eventually leaving to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.
Despite travel difficulties in the Washington D.C. area following American entrance into World War II, distinguished guests and other world leaders continued to visit Mount Vernon. One of the first prominent visitors during this chaotic time was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who came to Mount Vernon on January 1, 1942, accompanied by President Franklin Roosevelt, the British Ambassador to the United States Lord Halifax, and other officials. After placing a wreath at George Washington's tomb, the group went to the mansion where both Churchill and Roosevelt signed the guest book.
Just four days before visiting Mount Vernon, Madame Chiang addressed both the Senate in their chamber and the House of Representatives in order to present China’s case for increased American support during the war. The appearance was historical in nature, as it was the first time that a Chinese national addressed the Congress, as well as the first time the body had been addressed by a private citizen. Additionally, she was just the second woman to address both houses of the American Congress. Madame Chiang’s visit to the tomb on February 22, 1943, occurred on George Washington’s 211th birthday.
In July of 1944, while serving in a military capacity as the head of the Free French Forces, General Charles de Gaulle made his first visit to the United States to meet with President Roosevelt to discuss the war and argue for equal standing with the United States and Great Britain in the peace making process. While visiting Washington D.C., de Gaulle—as he later explained in his memoirs—“made a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon” in order to pay "homage to the memory of George Washington.”
The Crown Prince’s visit to Mount Vernon was organized by the State Department and noted in the MVLA’s annual report of that year, which explained that: “The Crown Prince, Ibn Saud of Arabia with his retinue in their native costumes made a colorful center of interest. He was most impressed by Mount Vernon and so appreciative of the courtesies extended to him that he sent Mr. Wall [Mount Vernon’s superintendent, Charles Cecil Wall] a handsome gold watch.”
A little more than a year after Ghana gained independence from British colonial rule, the nation’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah visited the United States in an attempt to gain favor for African national movements. On July 23, 1958, Nkrumah visited Mount Vernon in a State Department planned tour when he laid this wreath at Washington’s tomb.
Visits to the tomb by heads of state have continued into the twenty-first century. On February 19, 2007, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush visited the tomb in conjunction with President’s Day and to recognize Washington’s upcoming 275th birthday. Speaking at Mount Vernon, President Bush reflected on Washington’s contributions to the presidency, noting that “As President, George Washington understood that his decisions would shape the future of our young nation,” while reminding the audience that Washington “voluntarily gave up power” following the American Revolution.
On March 18, 2015, His Royal Highness Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Her Royal Highness Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon as part of their visit to the Washington, D.C. area. Their Royal Highnesses laid a wreath at the Tomb of George Washington as part of their tour of the estate. The Prince had previously visited the tomb in 1970. Near the tomb, Charles and Camilla had the opportunity to meet members of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
You don’t need to be a king or dignitary to visit George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon. Come to Mount Vernon and make your own pilgrimage.