It is a fair question, but in truth, he was our nation's first soldier. And while he did not die, I think what he sacrificed mirrors closely what our troops still sacrifice to this day. You have to visit Mt. Vernon to really understand why that is so.
George Washington loved this place, and it is so beautiful. The pictures do not capture the singing birds, the light breeze, the smells of verdant farming, or the astonishing peacefulness that can still be found here. Our country thinks so much of this man that they have committed substantial sums just to keep it looking, sounding and feeling like it did when he lived, and I am grateful they do, because without that experience, you can't fully appreciate how much he sacrificed to lead the revolution. Eight long years, he never even saw this place once. He thought about it every day in the field, and when asked what he wanted to be remembered for, it was farming, not soldiering. But instead of leaving Valley Forge to come home for a time, as he could have, he slept where his troops slept; ran and fought and hid and suffered with them, day in, day out. They received no pay, had ragged uniforms and no shoes; because he was unable to manage his estate, it was always on the verge of financial ruin, which worried him constantly. A devout family man, he worried about the effects his absence would have on his wife and children, the latter of whom did suffer lack of direction and discipline because of his absence.
Amazingly, these issues can still face our troops today: long absence from family, with modest pay, often leaves them with financial and family challenges. So maybe it is not such a bad way to begin a Memorial Day post, thinking of the sacrifices, large and small, from beginning to end, that our troops have always faced. I hope never to take that sacrifice for granted. A visit here, after having recently read the magnificent Washington biography by Chernow, certainly has helped me to remember.
The view from the back porch is just spectacular. The park service has purchased much of the land on the opposite bank of the Potomac to keep it from development.
It was such a special place to him that he wanted to be buried here, (not under the Capitol Rotunda, as others planned) and he was. I have recently grown tired and highly skeptical of the claim from intellectuals and the left that the founding fathers -- Washington and Jefferson among them (they couldn't possibly have said it about Adams) -- were "really not that religious," or didn't really believe in God. It seems that you can't read a biography of anyone these days (even Lincoln) without someone tossing such statements in, unsupported, as an aside.
Yet here we were, looking inside the sepulcher of the Washingtons, and what is the only statement that accompanies their remains? See for yourself:
Having read how many times in his life he referred to "Divine Providence," I see no basis for the assertions from the intellectual left, other than dishonesty born out of a willingness to do anything to subvert religion. And therein lies a deep sadness for me. I understand the problems of religion born from centuries of too much human frailty on stark display, and the need for frank discussion of same, but that does not justify such dissembling of the honest beliefs of perhaps our greatest man.
The estate itself is so well preserved that you can experience life as it was then, complete with blacksmiths and others plying their trade, as well as farming done with the same techniques.
These are the slave quarters at Mount Vernon. Washington freed his slaves upon his death, one of the only southern founding fathers to do so.
The carriage below was actually owned by him.
Apocryphal or not, it seemed very appropriate to take a photo of budding cherry blossoms at Mt. Vernon.
From Mount Vernon, we went to another favorite place in the area -- the former estate of Robert E. Lee, now known as Arlington National Cemetery.
I was overwhelmed the first time I came here, at age 17, with a group of high school kids from all over the country, attending what was known then as the Presidential Classroom. The sheer number of tombstones still boggles my mind - they seem to go on forever.
My first visit started here, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which says: "Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier, known only to God." The careful precision of the guard, the dedication and discipline that are offered in honor of those unknown dead, really impacted me.
Next stop was the gravesite for the Kennedys, where I actually cried in front of all of those peers. I had started at the simple gravesite of Robert F. Kennedy, opposite of which they have carved in granite these messages from his life:
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
"Aeschylus wrote: In our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and our people."
This speech was given in a very African American neighborhood in Indianapolis, the evening of the day when Martin Luther King was shot. No one wanted him to make it, but he went, and spoke to a crowd that could easily have seen him as part of the establishment. When I read this, I remember thinking, how could anyone shoot a person who believed in that, and had the courage to say it when and where he did? Why would you end the life of anyone who just wanted to make gentle the life of this world, through love and compassion and wisdom?
Bobby Kennedy will always be a hero to me, for that reason.
From Bobby Kennedy's grave, I made the short walk to JFK's gravesite, which contains excerpts of his famous inaugural:
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
Reading that message the first time, from a President shot and killed a year after I was born, made me think of all the noble dreams, all the great causes that had been cut short by the shortsightedness of men. It touched something deep in me. Where might we be if we could just live up to the inspiration that surrounds us, instead of living down to the fears that so quickly overtake us? Those lost opportunities are what made me sad enough to cry, as a 17 year old in front of peers from all over my country.
It was a joy to share these sites with my family, these many years later. These words, people, and honored places are part of what it means to be an American, and to me, it is a duty and honor to explain that to my family.
Here is L'Enfante's grave, overlooking the city he designed.
A last look at our nation's capital, over the rolling, special hills of Arlington.