A visit to the tomb of George Washington at his Mount Vernon plantation on the banks of the Potomac River. This is a scouting tradition as old as the scouting movement itself. It was a day trip made by scouts attending the first National Jamboree held on the National Mall in 1937. Fifty-five years later, my own scout troop from New Jersey completed this same excursion during a trip to Washington D.C.
What is it that scouts hope to experience on this pilgrimage? Or rather, like the poet Walt Whitman asked, “what stills the traveler come to the vault at Mount Vernon.”
Stillness is hardly the quality one would expect to find at the tomb of a victorious general or a president whose reputation drew applauds and approbation in all corners of the nation he helped found.
But the vault at Mount Vernon is neither the vault of a general nor the vault of a president. It is the tomb of a private citizen who returned to his home only after relinquishing the military and political power that won him public praise.
The scholar Garry Wills has suggested our adoration of Washington originates not in the myriad legends that exaggerated his military and political prowess but in Washington’s persistent resignation of those powers.
According to Wills, the mythic stature of Washington, in the eighteenth century and as well as today, was shaped by the legend of Cincinnatus, a modest Roman farmer who ascended to power only to resign from power. On two occasions, Cincinnatus was appointed dictator of Rome, responsible for defending the republic against invasion. On both occasions, after the invasions were thwarted, Cincinnatus relinquished his dictatorship and returned to his farm like any ordinary citizen who had completed his public service.
Washington was familiar with this legend, and like the ancient Roman farmer, he knew that the future of the American republic depended upon yielding power to the citizenry, which, in turn, must elect another president.
A visit to Mount Vernon does not memorialize the man but instead memorializes the virtue of the man who preserves public freedom by resigning from power.
Now of the old war-days…the defeat at Brooklyn;
Washington stands inside the lines…he stands on the
entrenched hills amid a crowd of officers,
His face is cold and damp…he cannot repress the
weeping drops…he lifts the glass perpetually to
his eyes…the color is blanched from his cheeks,
He sees the slaughter of the southern braves confided to him
by their parents.
The same at last and at last when peace is declared,
He stands in the room of the old tavern…the
wellbeloved soldiers all pass through,
The officers speechless and slow draw near in their turns,
The chief encircles their necks with his arm and kisses them
on the cheek,
He kisses lightly the wet cheeks one after another…he
shakes hands and bids goodbye to the army.
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)