In 2010, the New York Daily News printed a slightly scandalous scoop: George Washington had racked up over $300,000 in late fees on a copy of the Swiss philosopher Emer da Vattel’s The Law of Nations, borrowed from, but never returned to, the New York Society Library in 1789. When James Rees, Mount Vernon’s president and CEO, learned of this delinquency, he promptly returned a copy of the book and apologized on the president’s behalf in a small ceremony. Then, true to form, he used the occasion to remind those gathered that Mount Vernon was planning the creation of its own library.
For nearly 30 years, Rees, who retired at the beginning of this month due to illness, rarely missed an opportunity to promote George Washington. His management of Mount Vernon coincided, not coincidentally, with a sizeable expansion of the home’s profitability and visitor traffic. And equally significant, a series of innovative additions to the site, largely the result of his efforts, have increased Americans’ access to and understanding of their first president.
His efforts made and kept Mount Vernon, which lures over a million guests annually, America’s most frequented historic estate—a remarkable trend, given that it is arguably the most remote and least easily reached of the national landmarks clustered around our capital city. His prodigious fundraising—the endowment of the site, which takes no federal funds, increased from $4 million in 1983 to $125 million today—supported a transformation in the way it interprets its subject.
In the past, visitors came to the estate, wandered through the beautifully restored house, took in its scenic view of the Potomac River, snapped photos or bought postcards, and then hit the road. Today, they leave with a much clearer idea of who George Washington was and why his importance endures. They see a farmer, a businessman, a general, and a president, not just a historic home and its grounds.
“His goal has always been to help Americans discover the real George Washington,” says Susan Magill, Mount Vernon’s vice president of advancement and a longtime associate of Rees. “Because of Jim’s vision, people leave here inspired.”
The fruition of that vision came most visibly in the form of several additions to Mount Vernon’s landscape that enriched the experience of those who make the pilgrimage. These include the reconstruction of the plantation’s long-gone whiskey distillery and its neighboring gristmill in 2007 (see “Spirits of ’76” by Kevin R. Kosar, The Weekly Standard, June 4, 2012). In addition to allowing lucky visitors a chance to sip Washington’s white lightning, or sample flour and grits ground by his mill, the buildings, located three miles from his home, offer a glimpse of America’s father as a savvy and strategic entrepreneur.
The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, a 65,000-square-foot facility opened in 2006, offers a less quaint image of Washington. Filled not only with a museum’s worth of Mount Vernon’s own collection of relics, but also countless splashy interactive displays, a theater screening something akin to an action-adventure film, and even state-of-the-art life-sized reproductions of the man himself, the expansive facility is accurately described as an “immersive” experience.
Some of this is, perhaps, closer in spirit to Hollywood than to the Founding Fathers. Observers may, justifiably, lament the need to package and sell the most consequential of all Americans in such a manner. But our popular culture, with its stunted attention span and fascination with worthless celebrity, necessitates fighting fire with fire. Rees recognized this, and those who have stood in the long lines that lead into Mount Vernon, jostled for space in its education center, or enjoyed its multitude of attention-grabbing displays will recognize the value of translating Washington for a generation that might otherwise be oblivious to his importance or might never pick up a biography. And the resulting mixture of entertainment and history is far more graceful and effective than similar efforts, such as the cartoonish Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
Rees’s departure comes in advance of the completion of his final triumph as Mount Vernon’s steward.
Construction is underway on the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. When the $100 million enterprise for which Rees, in a depressed economy, raised $82 million, opens in the summer of 2013, it will not only reproduce Washington’s own book collection (a useful window into the man’s often-unrecognized intellect), but also establish a scholarship center and think tank—unique among historic sites.
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.