Mount Vernon Magazine Spring 2020 editionGod and Country
Portrait of President & CEO Doug Bradburn

From the President

This edition of Mount Vernon magazine explores the rich cultural relevance of the ancient world to the founders and the founding of the nation. In many ways, the 18th century was closer to the classical era than it is to the 21st century: Transportation moved at the speed of water current, wind, and muscle. The rhythms of life were driven by the seasonal calendar of planting and harvesting. Communications traveled at the pace of a conversation or a courier on horseback.

Through his readings and experiences, George Washington was regularly reminded of the world of ancient Greece and Rome. Familiar with Plutarch’s Lives and Julius Caesar’s commentary on the Gauls, a young George Washington during the French and Indian War was encouraged by his neighbor, Colonel William Fairfax, to emulate the stoic virtues of Alexander the Great and Caesar in the face of the thankless hardship of frontier service. By the time of the American Revolution, Washington often used classical allusions to inspire the soldiers. Even the language of liberty, which American patriots adopted from the English context, had origins in the stories of late Republican Rome, the letters of Cicero, and the life of Cato. Cato’s moving statement—“Let us rescue our liberties or die in their defense”—is the mirror to Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.”

So in some ways, it is not surprising that 18th-century Americans looked to people like Washington and found in them —as Thomas Ricks shows in his essay in this magazine— ancient Roman heroes of the classical era come to life.

A classical education was the path to gentility, and although Washington’s own was limited, he nevertheless acquired as much as possible. We see in Mary Sarah Bilder’s narrative that the remarkable and largely unknown educator Eliza Harriot believed that expanding education for women was the key to expanding their access to the political sphere.

At Mount Vernon, classical influences are visible throughout the Mansion in the decorations and objects from the Washingtons’ 40 years at the estate. In his article, Adam Erby, Mount Vernon’s curator, unveils the details— many drawn from English pattern books—of the late colonial period design of the Central Passage.

It is remarkable that such a new country was so eager to emulate the ancient past. Still, Americans in their newly founded independence were trying to find stability for an untested nation, so Mount Vernon could be a place that was From the President both ancient and magnificent, despite being brand-new. And Washington himself could be the personification of classical greatness, despite being a rebel unconnected to many of the great dynasties of Europe. The ancient world helped the new nation find a language of importance, and would go on to affect the architecture of its capital city, the names of its legislative branches (the Senate), and the most fundamental symbols of what it means to be an American.

I hope you enjoy this magazine as much as I have, and I look forward to seeing you all at Mount Vernon soon.


Douglas Bradburn



Birthday buzz, presidential visit, a long-hidden map, and more Read

 Focus on Philanthropy

The visionary Peter Cressy has raised both funds and spirits during his long involvement with Mount Vernon  Read

 Object Spotlight

An elegant neoclassical urn topped Eleanor Custis’s tea table Read

 Washington in the Classroom

Mount Vernon History Teacher of the Year Sean Miller shares some lessons Read

 Research at Mount Vernon

What eulogies of Washington reveal about the ideal American  Read

 Featured Photo

Within a circa-1870 image, the curious tale of a Washington statue Read

 Shows of Support

A night to remember at the 75th annual Birthnight Supper and Ball Read


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The Roman Character 

Though Washington did not have a classical education, he nevertheless evoked comparisons to the best of the ancients.

By Thomas E. Ricks

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The Heart of the House

The multiyear restoration of the Mansion’s Central Passage edges closer to completion.

By Adam T. Erby

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Change at the Podium

For likely the first time in the United States, a woman gave a public lecture. George Washington was there.

By Mary Sarah Bilder



Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.

—  George Washington,
First Annual Address, January 8, 1790