“No estate in united America is more pleasantly situated than this,” said George Washington about his Mount Vernon home.
I have stood on the grounds sloping away from Mount Vernon’s eastern façade to gaze at the Potomac a handful of times now, and each time have felt the magnetic power of that place. Little wonder that his desire to return to Mount Vernon and to behold again that very view kept Washington persevering through the travails of war and public service.
Washington as the Revolutionary War leader and Founding Father has fascinated me over the years, but through Ron Chernow’s excellent biography, I have a greater appreciation of Washington as the self-invented autodidact, the reluctant Cincinnatus, the gentleman farmer, and the childless family man. I plowed through most of the 800+page book as my December Rituxan reading.
In just the first few pages, I learned something about which I had been curious: how Washington had come to own such incredible real estate. In the mid-1600s, his great-grandfather acquired some 5,000 acres in colonial Virginia, the bulk of which was along the Potomac River at Little Hunting Creek. His father later built a home which Washington expanded to become what we know today as Mount Vernon. Washington’s older half-brother renamed the Little Hunting Creek estate after his commander in the British navy, Admiral Edward Vernon. That the place so identified with the man who took on the British would have taken its name from a British military figure was, I thought, a great tidbit of historic irony.
As Chernow described Washington’s struggles to grow profitable crops and wrestles with the economic and moral issues of slavery, I recalled the beauty of that land and some fun memories with the geography. One ambitious Saturday my third year in law school, some friends and I rode our bikes on the path from Arlington National Cemetery all the way down to Mount Vernon. That was a great outing – until we had to bike all the back. And then right before my Georgetown graduation, Bing took me sailing south down the Potomac. We discovered, though, that the current down by Mount Vernon is very strong, and it was a slow slog upstream. We were two hours late for the graduation party being thrown for me by none other than then-Congressman Mineta, “Uncle Norm,” and his family at their home. Fortunately, my parents, who were in town for my graduation, and their friends were having a great reunion without me. Since Norm was actually the Leungs’ congressman, Bing was mortified, but everyone seemed to think it was romantically cute that our excuse for being late was that we were stuck on a sailboat. One ULI trustee event was held on that back lawn and we got to climb around some usually-off-limits cellar passageways. The sun setting over the Potomac with dinner by candlelight on the Mount Vernon lawn – now that was impressive.
Bing’s favorite photo of his paternal grandparents, Peter Hin and Lillie Leung, was this one, which he took of them standing at the entrance to the Mount Vernon carriage path. He loved this one of them. You wouldn’t be able to see it, but Po Po Lillie is wearing the jade ring which I now have as a necklace.
These days it seems that we are removed from the reasons why we have holidays. A colleague commented to me as we were wrapping up today, “Holiday? What holiday?,” meaning that Monday is just the third day of a three-day weekend. I am admit to being glad we have the holiday weekend. But at least this Presidents’ holiday, I can look at this photo of Gung Gung Hin and Po Po Lillie at Mount Vernon, remember my other connections to that beautiful location, and relate in a small way the pull which it had for our first president. And then give thanks for the remarkable life which he led for our country’s benefit.