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Master of the House

At Mount Vernon, James Rees will be a hard act to follow

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By RYAN L. COLE
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In addition, Rees has, in tandem with the site’s governing board, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, kept Washington and his home out of the murk of political correctness. While the interpretation of so many historic sites is unavoidably strained through a modern filter of race, class, and gender, Mount Vernon has never presented Washington as a sinner-in-chief, or slaveholder first and hero second; but neither has it ignored the story of the enslaved men and women who lived there. This is in sharp contrast to sites such as Monticello, where an obsession with the flawed nature of former residents often threatens to cloud their importance.  

“Everything [Rees] did here during his tenure, every single thing, was always about George Washington and never about Jim Rees,” says Magill. Indeed, those who visit Mount Vernon after his departure will not likely notice a difference: Rees, whose long tenure at the site is itself noteworthy (though president since 1994, he has been with Mount Vernon in various positions since 1983), focused on promoting his “client,” not himself. But the occasion of his retirement warrants a note of gratitude. “Jim Rees made Mount Vernon beautiful, affordable, and visitor-friendly,” says writer and historian Richard Brookhiser. “It does whatever a man’s home, performance space, and last resting place can do to draw our attention to him. We should all thank Jim for a job well done.”

Ryan L. Cole is a writer in Indianapolis.

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