21 July 2023

The President Who Played Detective, and other adventures

Replica of Washington's Rising Sun chair, used during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. (The Museum of the American Revolution)

Is it my imagination, or have museums in the U.S. gotten loads better? Last summer I visited the visitor center at Valley Forge National Historical Park, and was impressed that the exhibits integrated two things that would have been unthinkable two decades ago: hands-on learning for kids, and excellent representation of the contributions of women, Native Americans, and people of color.

My childhood memories of this particular episode in the Revolutionary War featured three takeaways: George Washington had a white horse that he either rode or prayed beside; the American troops were poorly outfitted and left bloody footprints in the snow; and gee, the winter weather sure was bad.

I never learned that Washington’s encampment included “camp followers,” typically the spouses of the soldiers who cooked meals for the troops, mended clothing, and performed other valuable services. I didn’t learn that African American soldiers and Native Americans were also among the troops. I didn’t know that other civilians tagged along as well, earning a living selling wares and munitions. The visitor center touched on all of these things, including the fact that General Washington despised the camp followers, calling them a “clog,” i.e. a drain on the army's food and resources. 

Time was, you’d have to specifically visit a children’s museum to find child-height exhibits that asked critical thinking questions and encouraged kids to open boxes, touch replicas, and push buttons to reveal answers or to hear period-appropriate sounds.

When I confessed my astonishment to all this to one of the rangers, he informed me that everything I was seeing was installed during the center’s pandemic closure. Even the film shown in the theater had been revamped to depict troop diversity and the contributions of women.

These sorts of changes to the way we tell American history are often lambasted as revisionist. Others make a big deal when something is Not Taught In Schools, as if the omission is part of a conspiracy. It’s not. I haven’t seen a decent history textbook in forty years that does justice to the breadth and complexity of American history. As a culture, we choose what’s important, and then we water it down even further to create textbooks. For as long as I’ve been alive, the accomplishments of white men was believed to have been of paramount importance. So that’s what we taught. The best teachers I’ve known—of history or anything else—ignore the textbook and teach using materials they’ve discovered through their passion for the subject.

I hit plenty of other museums and historic sites on a recent trip up the coast, following a wedding. I offer these quick capsule reviews.


The Museum of the American Revolution:
This museum dates to 2012. Great assortment of weaponry and Hessian headgear. It has a replica of a pirate ship, a Liberty Tree, a replica of the statue of the King George statue that solders and civilians tore down in 1776 in downtown Manhattan, and melted for bullets. You also learn about colonial-era voting rights for women, and the contributions of women, Africans enslaved or free, and Native Americans to the cause. The crown jewel of the museum collection is the tent used by Washington at Valley Forge. I went to the museum on a weekday, and found that the docents were pretty good at warning you when large school groups are likely to impede your progress through the galleries.

The Betsy Ross House: I’d never been, I’m glad I went, but I’m not sure I’d go again. Most historians question the assertion that Ross sewed the first U.S. flag, a story which came to light about a hundred years after her death in the form of affidavits signed by her descendants. There are wonderful exhibits for kids. You really get a sense of what it was like for a woman to run a successful business as a seamstress and upholsterer in this era. The house is minuscule, and I venture to say that the outside courtyard and attached gift shop comprise more square footage than the entire house. The best book I’ve found on the central question—did she or didn’t she?—is the one by Marla R. Miller.

The President's House: The house where Washington lived during the later years of his presidency no longer stands, but its footprint is smartly delineated by a series of exhibits on the edge of the green in front of Independence Hall. According to Pennsylvania law, any slave who lived in the state for six months automatically became free. To circumvent this law, the Washingtons rotated their slaves so no one person would hit the six-month-mark. Panels and film clips recount the story of an enslaved woman, Ona Judge, who managed to escape to New England and live out her life in freedom. See the book by historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

Washington's Privy. (Mt. Vernon)

Franklin Court: Old Ben’s house no longer stands but you can walk the courtyard where he and his family resided. Nearby are a historic post office, print shop, and a museum—all of which I love. But I was a Franklin fan going way back. Round tablets stationed throughout the courtyard tell you where the privies serving this household were once situated. I love historic crap, but not necessarily this version. The only exhaustive book on Franklin’s life in recent years is the one by Walter Isaacson.

While in Philly:
We did cheese it up at Campo’s and Sonny’s, two Center City joints known for cheesesteaks. I split two of these sandwiches in one day with my wife, and lived to tell the tale.

Washington DC:

The National Postal Museum: This was a surprise. You can see replicas of old stagecoaches that delivered mail, and postal train cars that carried postal workers who sorted mail as the train rocketed to their next destination. You can wander a forest, imagining what it was like to travel through colonial America delivering mail and following axe marks on trees to reach the next mail stop. I was astonished to learn that the name of newspapers was originally derived from the method by which they were delivered—hence names such as The Post, Courier, Packet, and so on. All of these exhibits and the Smithsonian’s postal archives are housed in this massive old postal building. There’s a working postal window within the gift shop, where you can buy hot new stamp releases. Highly recommended.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture: This is a very new museum and still hot with tours and school groups. Timed entry is mandatory, and helps keep the pace going. If you start at the beginning, with exhibitions focusing on slavery, you’ll encounter a sluggish series of queues. The pace picks up in later galleries. The biggest takeaway is seeing just how many nations engaged in the slave trade. But it would be incorrect to see the museum solely as the story of slavery in America. It’s so much more, and far too rich to take in on one visit. We’ll be going back. One book I’d recommend: All that She Carried by Tiya Miles.

Colonial Williamsburg: I’d visited here for a blur of a weekend as a kid, and during a book signing event as an adult. This was the first time I actually entered most of the restored structures and spoke with the artisans and docents who bring this place to life. The tinsmith, the pewterer, the printers, and the bookbinders not only know about their craft as it’s practiced today but also how it was conducted in the 1760s-1770s England and Williamsburg. At the drop of tricorn hat, they can quote from interesting historical records they consulted to bone up on their professions. When I asked a gunsmith if the metal parts of their weapons were made by the local blacksmith, he scoffed, “No way! We don't even drink with those guys! We make everything ourselves.” I enjoyed the shops, I enjoyed the period-authentic menus at the restaurants, and I dug the live music. We stayed in an attic room on one of the main drags, which granted us admission tickets for the length of our stay. I’d return again to visit structures closed or under renovation on this time around.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: I’d never been, and I’d return again. The grounds feature a modern museum, the residence, several outbuildings, a working farm with animals, stunning views of the Potomac, and the tombs of the president and Martha. The most powerful part of our visit was a wreath-laying ceremony at the graveyard of free and enslaved persons. As each new grave is identified (but not exhumed) local scout troops are invited to mark the graves with hand-painted rocks. About 80 burial sites have been located; about 150 people are believed to have been interred here. We befriended a docent and fifer who made this short ceremony all the more special.

He was very proud of that lawn.

I admit that my headline here is clickbaity but I couldn’t resist sharing an anecdote related on the enslaved persons tour. The lawn in front of Mt. Vernon was cut by workers wielding scythes back in the day. Vast lawns were a sign of wealth. Washington instructed his overseers to tell the enslaved workers (about 500 people over the span of years that the couple lived here) not to walk on the grass but to stick to the well-marked paths around it.

Washington arose one morning to find a footprint in the grass. A clever surveyor, he dashed indoors for a measuring tool, recorded the dimensions of the footprint, and instructed his men to visit the slave quarters, measuring feet until they found the culprit. According to our docent, the records state that the unnamed offender was found and severely dealt with. (The presumption is that they were whipped.) The evidence seems skimpy, if you ask me, considering the similarities in people’s foot sizes. But hey, you do you, Detective-in-Chief! Yay Washington. Yay America.

* * * 

BSP: Today I am a proud husband bragging about his wife. Denise had an article appear this week in Rolling Stone, pegged to the opening of the Oppenheimer film that opens this week. You can read it here. You may encounter a paywall, that is apparently applied at random. You can usually read the whole article if you activate your browser's "reader mode."

See you in three weeks!




  1. I've been to Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne (both of which I enjoyed very much). My favorite story of going to a living historical place. Every summer for a while, I taught ESL with two others to a group of about 60 Japanese boys, who were escorted by about 6 Japanese men, who said they'd handle anything the boys didn't understand. This summer we took them to Rocky Mount Living Historical Museum. (GREAT place - Piney Flats TN) So we handled all the tickets, etc., and we walked in, and one of the enactors explained all about the place in a strong, thick old-timey Tennessee accent. And the 60 boys looked at the 6 men, and the 6 men all turned to us with wide-eyed alarm, because they didn't understand a word of it. So I repeated everything the enactor had said, and the Japanese men said, basically, variations of "Ah, naruhodu!" and the boys all nodded and bowed, and the enactor just stared at all of us. And that's when I realized that foreign students learn English in their teacher's voice, but not necessarily in anyone else's for a while. Spent the whole day repeating everything every other enactor said (puzzled the poor people to no end), and explaining in between times that there were many, many, many English accents, and giving examples which gave everyone great bewilderment and hilarity.
    Congratulations, Denise!

    1. I love that story, but what does naruhodu mean? Prof. Google apparently doesn't understand the accent I type in.

  2. Great piece. The Ona Judge story is fascinating: Washington had federal officers all over the north hunting for her. They found her in Rhodes Island and the official told the Prez that if he arrested her there would be riots, because RI was anti-slavery. Judge offered to come back IF George promised to free her in his will. He said he would not reward her bad behavior so she didn't go. To understand this incident fully you have to realize that Washington had a powerful sense of the righteousness of his own behavior so Judge saying, in effect, "I would rather be a free woman cleaning fish outside on a cold New England morning that be a pampered slave (Martha's personal servant) in the presidential mansion" was an accusation against his whole way of life.

    The African-American Museum is stunning. Decades ago, with an hour to kill, I visited the Postal Museum and was surprised at how interesting it was. It reminded us that postal workers were killed by an anthrax attack after 9/11, for instance.

    1. Rob: That is exactly the story the docents told us. He was offended by her offer. The there thing that was interesting about the museum at Mount Vernon is their exhibit on how they created the life-sized figures of Washington on exhibit. They basically used oil paintings of him and his death mask, scanned them, and then used software to age older or younger. Then they used existing clothing of his to calculate how his body and muscles altered over time. (This would only be possible with custom-made clothing, not threads from our off-the-rack era.) They claim to have arrived at the best possible likeness ever created.

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn21 July, 2023 17:59

    I grew up in the Virginia suburbs outside D.C. & also lived in Fluffya for a while. I went to camp in Jamestown, Va. & visited Williamsburg, so I've seen most of the places you mention. If you get to go on another trip to Northern Virginia, be sure to spend a little time in Old Town Alexandria. If you go to Mount Vernon again they have a great restaurant that serves food similar to the cuisine the Washington family probably ate ... we had Thanksgiving dinner there once, starting with pumpkin soup, johnny cakes & I think there was even roast goose.

    1. Hi Elizabeth: We went to that restaurant! It was delicious for lunch. And then we came back for dinner and hung out. What's interesting is, after the tour buses leave, you get a lot of local regulars who hang out at that tiny bar. We later realized that there really aren't many dining options in that immediate area that are as nice as the Mount Vernon pub.


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