In the early years of the 19th century, a steady stream of people made pilgrimages to Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation owned by George Washington. From all across America and Europe they came, seeking solace, inspiration or both at the tomb of the most celebrated founding father.
The tradition of visiting the estate, long considered a shrine to America’s loftiest democratic ideals, began when the man himself was still living. In 1797, after two terms as America’s first president, Washington had retired to Mount Vernon, where he looked forward to enjoying the fruits of what he called the nation’s “mutual cares, labors and dangers” after 45 years of service to his country.
But for Washington, retirement did not mean the end of his life as a public figure. As in the years after the Revolutionary War, guests flocked to Mount Vernon hoping to pay their respects to and share space—however briefly—with the former president. In 1798, according to Mount Vernon’s official records, George and Martha Washington hosted guests for dinner on 203 of the 310 days for which records exist. Overnight guests stayed at Mount Vernon on 183 of those 310 days.
According to Rob Shenk, the senior vice president of visitor engagement at Mount Vernon, hosting such an influx of visitors wasn’t as unusual back then as it would be today. This was partly due to the long, hallowed tradition of Virginia hospitality, but also to the difficulties involved in travel at the time. “There just weren’t hotels, motels, cars, and accommodations in this era,” Shenk said. “Even Alexandria by horseback was not a simple visit. There were a lot of people moving between Philadelphia or the new capital, and Richmond and Williamsburg to the south (who) might find staying at Mount Vernon a convenient stop on that way.”
After Washington died in 1799, the flow of visitors slowed, but did not stop entirely. Martha moved out of their shared bedroom to a small room on the third floor, where she could get more privacy. Upon Martha’s own death in 1802, Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington inherited Mount Vernon. A longtime associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Bushrod welcomed his own roster of prominent guests at the estate, but didn’t approach his uncle’s level of fame or hospitality.
While only selected guests were admitted to the mansion itself, all pilgrims to Washington’s tomb were directed to the old family vault, which Washington himself had called “improperly situated” and “requiring repairs.” There they would linger in silence, pray or even shed a few tears. Many would take souvenirs: flowers, tree branches or even a stone or two. According to historian Matthew Costello, one pilgrim recorded in 1824 that “the cedars are nearly stripped of their green boughs by the great number of visitors, who pluck them and carry them away as mementos.”
Unsurprisingly, with all this traffic, the tomb’s condition continued to deteriorate over the years, and many visitors blamed the Washington family for not maintaining the tomb sufficiently. For his part, Bushrod took steps to stem the tide of visitors to the estate, or at least the really rowdy ones. In his book Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, Scott E. Casper wrote that in 1822, the judge advertised that parties arriving by steamboat would no longer be welcome, and banned “eating, drinking and dancing parties.”
A new brick mausoleum was eventually constructed to replace the old family vault, and George and Martha Washington’s remains were transferred there in 1831. By that time, guidebooks about Washington, D.C. often endorsed trips to Mount Vernon, citing the tomb and the Bastille key (a gift from Washington’s Revolutionary War comrade and surrogate son, the Marquis de Lafayette) as must-see attractions. (Lafayette made his own famous pilgrimage to Washington’s old tomb during his triumphal tour of the United States in 1824-25.)
By the 1850s, Shenk said, “There was a lot of talk…about what would be the future of George Washington’s home.” The mansion itself was in rough condition by this time, and people worried that whoever bought it from the family would overly commercialize it. Enter the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the first major historic preservation group in the United States, and one of few organizations of its time to be entirely owned and controlled by women. After raising some $200,000 to purchase the estate from John Augustine III, the association painstakingly restored the mansion and opened it to the public.
After Bushrod died in 1829, his nephew John Augustine Washington II inherited Mount Vernon., which later passed to his son, John Augustine Washington III, who would its last private owner. According to Casper, John Augustine III ended the ban on steamboats, and even contracted with a boat company to deposit passengers at the Mount Vernon wharf several times a week. Many of them posed for ambrotypes or other early photographs in front of Washington’s tomb, preserving evidence of their pilgrimages for posterity.
Over the more than 150 years that have passed since then, through the Civil War and two World Wars, Mount Vernon has remained a destination for people seeking to pay homage to Washington’s legacy. Many U.S. presidents and other world leaders have made their own pilgrimages to Washington’s tomb over the years, including notable visits by Woodrow Wilson during World War I, and King George VI, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle during World War II.
“They often come during great times of trial,” Shenk recalled. “It’s always had that hold on Americans, being the centerpiece of our founding.”