During the summer of 2018, I was fortunate to visit Mount Vernon for the first time as part of the George Washington Teacher Institute Residential Program (GWTI), a professional development program for teachers around the country. During our time at the estate, my fellow GWTI participants and I were immersed in lectures, discussions, and tours that explored the topic of slavery in George Washington’s world. Although our experience focused on slavery, my colleagues and I explored many different aspects of Washington’s life during our Institute. It was during our tours of the estate that I began to understand the impact visiting historical sites could have on one’s interpretation of history.
Even though I have spent a large part of my adult life studying and teaching early American history and have visited many historical sites, I constantly found myself intrigued by Washington’s world as I walked the grounds of the estate. I had always focused my energies on Washington the general or Washington the president. I had never placed much emphasis on Washington the farmer. It was almost if I was seeing George Washington through a fresh set of eyes. As a history teacher, I began reevaluating my understanding of Washington and thinking about how my time at his home could influence my teaching of early American history. Repeatedly, I kept coming back to how I could use Washington’s world a microcosm example of life on southern plantations in the late 18th century in my classroom. It did not take long before the ideas began to flow.
Through my experience at GWTI, I came to understand that studying Washington using place, specifically Mount Vernon, would help better personify Washington to my students. Many students have a hard time getting past the stiff and stoic image of Washington. Exploring his life as a gentleman farmer on the Potomac provides a multifaceted look at Washington the man, a version of Washington that many students will not find in the pages of their history textbooks.
Teaching Place Using Mount Vernon in My Classroom
When I returned to the classroom in the fall, I immediately began implementing the knowledge gained at Mount Vernon into my American history lessons. Visiting Washington’s home changed my perspective on how I viewed him and as we approached George Washington in our curriculum, I wanted to share my experience at Mount Vernon with my students. Regrettably, the prospect of an actual field trip to the estate was nearly impossible; our school in Alabama is nearly 1,000 miles away, so I needed a plan B for teaching with place at Mount Vernon.
Fortunately, technology allowed me to bring Mount Vernon right into my classroom. Using the Virtual Tour on Mount Vernon’s website I walked my students through the Mansion and the estate and discuss what we saw along the way. I have used virtual field trips in my classroom before, but my experience using Mount Vernon’s was enhanced by my time at the George Washington Teacher Institute. I worked first-hand with top scholars, archeologists, and archivists who helped broaden my understanding of eighteenth-century southern American society and Washington’s place in it. This knowledge was extremely helpful in classroom discussions as my students and I made our way through the Mansion and the grounds of the estate during our virtual tour.
Note: the virtual tour is extensive... in a good way! Below are just a few examples I used during our tours to make connections using place at Mount Vernon and to provide a better perspective of George Washington as the gentleman farmer for my students.
As we toured the Mansion, I asked my students to pay close attention to the décor. The first thing many noticed was the bright colors used in several of the rooms on the main floor.
I explained to my students the wealthy often use paint and wallpaper in colors such as green and Prussian blue because it was difficult to produce and very expensive. It was a status symbol of the wealthy planter class to decorate using these colors in their stately homes. This helped my students better understand that if Washington wanted to keep up with his wealthy peers, he needed to follow the style of the day. Another important décor statement Washington made is evident in many of the paintings in the mansion’s New Room.
Many of the paintings hanging in this grand room are scenes of Washington’s beloved Potomac River and other domestic sceneries. I used these scenes to highlight Washington’s love for the American landscape. Students learned that Washington’s first job was as a surveyor of lands in the colonies and he would have experienced scenes similar in his journeys to western lands. By decorating his grand New Room with scenes of the American frontier and not of European landscapes, I explained that Washington was making a statement by breaking away from the décor standards of grand homes prior to the creation of the American republic. My students enjoyed discussing how Washington, in essence, helped create an American sense of style.
Most of the nearly three hundred enslaved people at Mount Vernon worked in the fields on one of his five farms. As we approached the slave cabin on our tour, we spent several minutes exploring the exterior of the structure in the yard. Students noted the garden, which started a discussion about how men and women enslaved at Mount Vernon could plant and maintain a garden in order to supplement their daily rations and that there is evidence of the produce being sold both to George Washington and at the market in Alexandria.
I used this time as an opportunity to show students a great video on Mount Vernon’s website about enslaved worker songs and discussed how slaves would use these songs as a means of keeping pace and to help pass time as they labored in the fields. Next, we ventured into the slave cabin in order to understand what living conditions were like for slaves at Mount Vernon.
We discussed how as many six or more people could be living in this very small space. I also explained that wives might often live and work on one farm while their husbands lived on one of the other four farms making it very hard to have a traditional family life. Our time at the slave cabin helped enlighten students on the stark contrast of the lives of those enslaved in the south to their owners who depended on slave labor to keep up their comfortable lifestyles.
Marcee Hinds teaches 10th grade US History at Baker High School in Mobile, Alabama.