Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration Gets Underway

By Karen Rubin

The inauguration of President Barack Obama last month was for me the climax of a personal presidential odyssey, as I became one of more than two million pilgrims on that historic day.

What better way to understand the American Presidency than by going to where it all began, George Washington's Mount Vernon, where you can see the first oath of office (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

My visit to Washington DC afforded me an opportunity to delve into the lives of two important presidents whom we celebrate this month, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, so that by the time I watched Obama swear the oath of office, I found I had a much deeper understanding of the human context of a responsibility that has become, and probably always was, larger-than-life.

My odyssey began at the home of the man who first defined what it meant to be President of the new nation, George Washington.

So while hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the Lincoln Monument for the free concert that was part of the pre-inaugural festivities, I took the gorgeous drive on the bucolic George Washington Parkway along the Potomac River, some 16 miles to Mount Vernon (I learned that you can also reach it by bike along an 18 mile path from downtown).

Everyone knows that name: Mount Vernon… but I soon realized that all I really knew was that image of a simple home that seemed to reflect the humility of the man who won independence from the superpower of the age and declined to be crowned king of the new nation.

And as I walked up the long dirt path to the mansion, I realized that I had little understanding of what was behind that famous façade, or even the man who became the iconic figure, even in his own day.

The picture I had always seen was of a modest house, and stories had always depicted Washington as a humble man, which I interpreted to mean “modest” and “simple” as in “unadorned.”

Even before I crossed the threshold, though, a whole new picture of this iconic figure formed.

The form of the house is simple, that is true. Washington inherited it, and then expanded the mansion using his skills as an architect (who knew?) and his knowledge of civil engineering.

The façade of Mount Vernon, like George Washington himself, seems plain until you cross the threshold (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

But even the exterior is not really plain at all – the house looks as if it is made of stone, but is actually pine boards, beveled to look like stone, then sand is applied to wet paint to give it the texture of stone. This, process, called “rustication,” was highly innovative at the time, and typically only used for decoration rather than the whole structure.

The famous columns in the front of the mansion, that faces the Potomac, also was an innovation in its day. And though the house incorporates Federalist elements, it cannot be classed in any one architectural style.

These are the first innovations you see, and as soon as you step into the threshold, you see something totally unexpected: it is stunning – opulent but tasteful, and in its day, high fashion and thoroughly modern.

And soon you realize that Washington was hip – he was a thoroughly modern man, up with fashion. That meant Vertigree green and Persian blue colored paint on the walls – expensive but very au courant.

Upstairs, you get a better understanding of who he was, when you see the very crib where his great-grandchild was born – he and Martha raised their grandchild as their own after Martha’s son from a first marriage died. And then you see his bed, where he lived and died. There are three bedrooms – Marquis de Lafayette stayed in one of them during his visit in 1787.

Back downstairs, you walk through his library, and see the actual desk and chair (a newfangled swivel chair) that he used as President; on the wall is a relief that depicts him with a wreath around his head, like Julius Caesar, and realize what could have been.

Then you walk into the thoroughly “modern” kitchen where you see a state-of-the art “Smoke Jack” – a heat-powered rotisserie, where a chain run up the chimney was attached to a fan, which turned with the hot air rising from the fire, and turned the spit – and a coffee roaster, which was new and fashionable.

This new image of Washington came as a shock.

I had always imagined Washington to be a simple farmer – an estate, to be sure – but I was unprepared for the size of his holdings – some 8,000 acres here on the edge of the Potomac River, and 51,000 acres in the west.

In fact, Washington was one of the biggest landowners and one of the wealthiest men in the entire nation at the time.

Most stirring though is what we learn of George Washington and his conflicted attitude toward slavery, and the impossible politics this institution produced for the fledgling nation.

Washington's innovative swivel chair and the desk he used as President, now in his library at Mount Vernon (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

Washington inherited 10 slaves when he was 11, and by the time he died, in 1799, he had increased his holdings – including the slaves that were acquired with Martha – to 316.

“There is not a man living who worked more seriously than I did to see a plan adopted, for the abolition of slavery,” he wrote in 1783.

Washington found it increasingly difficult to justify slavery in a country founded on liberty. Moreover, he also questioned the value to the economy and proved prescient in believing the slavery question would tear the country apart.

He refused to address the issue of slavery publicly, but freed his slaves in his will, which he hoped would set an example.

I knew this much, but what I had not known is that in 1797, two years before he died, he proposed to sell his western lands in order to seed a fund to purchase the freedom of slaves, but that did not materialize. Also in 1797, he advocated Virginia instituting a policy to gradually abolish slavery.

And though you could imagine that Washington was a humane “master,” it came as a surprise that the slaves on his estate were hardly compliant. Rather, they exercised disobedience and passive resistance.

Martha’s favorite slave, Oney Judge, escaped to New Hampshire in 1796 and Washington went there to bring her back. We learn that she said she would return if she would be freed. When Washington refused, she remained in New Hampshire, married, had a family, and died in 1850.

On the property on a site where slaves would have been buried in unmarked graves, is a slavery memorial that, interestingly, is in close proximity to Washington’s own tomb.

We learn of Washington’s views on slavery in the relatively new Education Center and museum, which opened about two years ago. It is tremendously engaging, with interactive exhibits as well as fascinating artifacts and personal objects, plus a 3-D movie that is incredible.

Seeing Abraham Lincoln's suit and Mary Todd Lincoln's gown at the National Museum of American History, you almost imagine they were standing in front of you (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

I learned that George Washington, who only attended school up to the age of 11, was not just an entrepreneur but a scientist, who applied scientific methods to farming. He shifted from tobacco (would that more of the southern planters did that), and cultivated 100 different crops. He advocated the breeding of mules.

What better way to humanize an iconic figure than to see his false teeth?

Relatively new is the Donald W. Reynolds Education Center, featuring 23 galleries and theater – each of them with interactive components, original artifacts, or engaging technology – that illuminate the detailed story of Washington’s life, including his military and presidential careers. The building also serves as Washington’s presidential library with computers that will provide access to more than 20,000 letters written by Washington during his lifetime.

A fantastic 3-D movie provides a fast-paced depiction of three key battles of the Revolutionary War, complete with the rumble and roar of cannon fire, fog that drifts into the theater, and snow that descends from above and dissipates just before landing on visitors, as the troops cross the Delaware River.

Mount Vernon’s most prized artifact is the Jean-Antoine Houdon’s terracotta bust of George Washington, created with a life mask in 1785. This remarkable sculpture – the most accurate likeness of Washington – is exhibited with dramatic lighting in a circular, domed gallery designed exclusively to showcase the piece. The bust was installed at Washington’s height (over 6’2″) to give visitors an indication of how he towered over most of his contemporaries. Adjacent to the gallery is a video nook where visitors can see a History Channel video showing how the life mask was prepared and the terracotta bust created.

The “At Home with the Washingtons Gallery”, the largest of the permanent collection galleries in the new Museum, gives a glimpse of the Washingtons’ daily lives, whether at Mount Vernon or on the road.

The Washington Style Gallery present personal objects used and worn by George and Martha Washington, their children and grandchildren. From objects that were used on a daily basis, to those reserved for more special occasions, the style of the Washingtons emerges. Among the objects is George Washington’s shoe and knee buckles and Martha Washington’s earrings and necklaces.

Canvas hoods of Lincoln's assassins, on view at a breathtaking exhibit at the National Museum of American History (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

The Book and Manuscript Gallery focuses on Washington’s insatiable hunger for knowledge, his keen curiosity, and his life-long desire to better understand the world around him, as shown through manuscripts, maps, prints, and books.

There is also a “Hands on History” room, for 3-8 year olds.

You enter Mount Vernon at the Ford Orientation Center, which opened in 2006 (I had to rush through and didn’t get to visit). Here, state-of-the-art theaters show a dramatic, action-filled 18-minute movie, “We Fight to Be Free” illustrating pivotal moments from George Washington’s life, giving visitors their first look at George Washington as a charismatic American hero. You see Washington grappling with the challenges of the Revolutionary War and surviving close calls in the French and Indian War, meeting and falling in love with Martha Custis, and the legendary scene when Washington concludes that his exhausted and undermanned army must cross the icy Delaware River. Filmed primarily at Mount Vernon by Hollywood production company Greystone Films, the large-format film serves as a vehicle for visitors as they transition from the present day to the 18th century.

The orientation, that also includes Mount Vernon In Miniature and bronze sculptures of the Washington family, provides an overview of the Mount Vernon experience while dispelling the elder statesman icon and introducing the real George Washington – a dynamic, fascinating hero – prior to touring the estate.

There are special tours you can take, as well. I missed spending time in the Orientation Center because I was rushing to make the “National Treasure Tour” – which I thought was the opportunity to see rare national treasures, but in fact, was based on the Nicolas Cage film, “Book of Secrets” that features Mount Vernon. If you have that much time or you are trying to engage someone who is otherwise turned off to history, it is an entertaining way to get information; but as I was in pursuit of real history, and I could have used the time more constructively, in many of the exhibits and galleries.

You need four hours at least, to have time to visit the many different exhibits, galleries, and structures on the vast estate.

Washington is so revered that during the Civil War, Mount Vernon was considered neutral territory and respected by both sides, and through the decades, world leaders have come here to pay homage at his tomb.

I hadn’t realized it, but Mount Vernon has been open for public visits since 1858. In fact, Mount Vernon has been owned, operated and carefully preserved and maintained the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, founded by Ann Pamela Cunningham and the oldest national historic preservation organization in the United States. The association purchased the estate from Washington’s descendents in 1853 after an unprecedented grassroots campaign that raised $200,000, and proceeded to restore it to its former glory. It is understandably the most visited historic home in the country – because of Washington, himself, and the proximity to Washington DC. And when you see the hoards of people tramping up to the “above stairs” (the second floor), you are amazed that the house has been able to withstand such assault. About one million people visit each year.

Lincoln's stovepipe top hat that he wore the night he was shot at Ford's Theatre, one of dozens of intimate objects that bring the man to life (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

While the estate, gardens and farm of Mount Vernon totaled some 8,000 acres in the 18th century, today, roughly 500 acres have been preserved; visitors can see 20 structures and 50 acres of gardens as they existed in 1799. The estate also includes a museum, the tombs of George and Martha Washington, Washington’s greenhouse, an outdoor exhibit devoted to American agriculture as practiced by Washington, the nation’s most important memorial to the accomplishments of 18th-century slaves, and a collection which features numerous decorative and domestic artifacts. There is a lovely café and shop, as well.

Mount Vernon, which is completely self-supported, is open 365 days of the year, usually 9-5 (from 8 in summer, and closes at 4 in winter); admission is $15/adults, $14/seniors, $7/child 6-11. It is best to prepare in advance for your visit, and find out about the special programs and exhibits: 703-780-2000, HYPERLINK

Lincoln Bicentennial Underway

My presidential odyssey continued the next day. After picking up my tickets to the Inauguration at Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office at the Rayburn Building, I wandered up the National Mall to the Museum of American History, one of the Smithsonian museums, which only has been reopened after a renovation since November.

In honor of the inauguration there were special activities, including reenactors who looked, sounded and acted so much like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln that if you saw them still, you would have thought they were wax figures. They talked in their character from the benefit of a certain amount of hindsight and answered questions from an enrapt audience (it was easy to think these were the real McCoy), and offered a fascinating perspective on their lives and decisions.

And then I found myself in a special Lincoln exhibit, “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” that had only just opened Jan. 16. The exhibit brings together more than 60 objects associated with Lincoln’s life, from an iron wedge he used to split wood in the early 1830s in New Salem, Ill., to his iconic stovepipe top hat that he wore the night he was shot at Ford’s Theatre, and together, offer the most intimate understanding of the man.

It was all the more fascinating since I am in the midst of reading Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln,” and the names of the characters – all historical figures – were jumping out from the artifacts and documents on view.

Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington answer questions about their Presidency, at the National Museum of American History (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

There is his famous stovetop hat sitting in the case as you enter the exhibit, in a soft glow of light.

Most surprising (and here, you think you know such famous figures) is that I learned that Lincoln is the only president who actually holds a patent – you see his patent application and a scale model of his invention, a device to lift boats.

And when you consider his intelligence, how he had to deal with the biggest crises to confront the nation since Independence, and the remarkable ideas and language of his speeches, and then realize that Lincoln was the son of an illiterate farmer who schooled himself by reading books. In fact, Lincoln even learned the law by borrowing books and training informally.

You appreciate so much better the improbable combination that he made with Mary Todd when you see the gorgeous purple velvet gown made for her by Elizabeth Keckley, next to his black suit, and yet (and this is where my book helps), you appreciate the compelling attraction. They made a very good team, all in all.

The artifacts and documents and photos in the exhibit are thrilling to behold (this is the Smithsonian Institution, after all, the nation’s own Museum of American History.) You see Lincoln’s gold pocket watch from his days as a Springfield lawyer, the inkstand he used to draft the Emancipation Proclamation

And one in particular: a coffee cup. It was April 14, 1865, the Civil War was coming to end. Lincoln was actually cheerful that night. This was the coffee cup he left behind on the windowsill, before departing to Ford’s Theater.

You see plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands that were taken by Chicago artist Leonard Volk, on May 20, 1860, two days after he received the nomination as the Republican Party presidential candidate. To steady his right hand in the mold, which was still swollen from shaking hands with supporters, Lincoln cut off a piece of broom handle to hold.

And finally, Clark Mill’s life mask of Lincoln, made Feb. 11, 1865 – the second, and last life mask, where you can see so plainly the strains of his presidency etched in his face.

The creepiest part of the exhibit is a display of eight canvas masks, which the conspirators to his assassination were forced to wear during their imprisonment, with photos and biographical descriptions.

But I had not realized that there was a wider conspiracy – an attack on other figures, including Secretary of State Seward, at the same time.

When you go through this part of the exhibit, it strikes you like reading “Romeo & Juliet” and hoping for a different outcome to the tragedy.

The climax to a Presidential odyssey in DC: seeing Barack Obama inaugurated; here, the 44th President makes his Inaugural Speech (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

By the end of the exhibit, you are in tears when you read, “Like no other American, Lincoln’s life is entwined with the history and culture of the nation. His rise from poverty to the presidency has inspired others to believe in the promise of opportunity, his success in preserving a democratic nation is one of America’s greatest triumphs and his death is an American tragedy.”

Another exhibit at the Museum of American History is devoted to the American Presidency – so you can better appreciate the panoply of Presidents (big thrill: Obama’s image had already been added to the timetable the day before Inauguration).

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. The museum shines new light on American history after having been dramatically transformed by a two-year renovation.

Indeed, a thrilling exhibit greets you as you enter: the Star Spangled Banner, the actual garrison flag that waved adopt Fort McHenry in 1814, signaling America’s triumph in withstanding the British attack, that so inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that became the national anthem (, 202-633-1000).

The Smithsonian Institution is commemorating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1809 with several exhibitions and opportunities to meet acclaimed Lincoln scholars and tour Lincoln-era sites. The exhibitions and events will allow visitors to immerse themselves in the history of one of the nation’s most transformative leaders. For more information, go to The dedicated Web site for the document exhibition is For Smithsonian information, call 202-633-1000.

Newseum: Check on the Presidency

My next stop in my odyssey was the Newseum, a relatively new attraction, and situated, appropriately, just a few blocks away from both the White House and the Capitol – as it should be. This museum is devoted to the Fourth Estate – the entity that holds accountable those who hold power, and serves as one of the checks-and-balances that preserves our democracy. Newseum has just opened a new exhibit, on view through Dec. 31, “Manhunt: Chasing Lincoln’s Killer,” explores how new developments in journalism and technology came together in the news coverage of Abraham Lincoln’s death and the hunt for his killer. The exhibit, which through Dec. 31, 2009, was created in collaboration with James L. Swanson, author of “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.” Open daily 9-5, Adults/ $20; Seniors, military and students/$18; Youth (7 to 18)/$13 Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington DC 2001, 888-639-7386, (More on the Newseum in a future column).


This week is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, on February 12, 1809, kicking off a national celebration of events and exhibits.

More than 2 million people came out to witness President Barack Obama take the oath of office (© 2009 Karen Rubin/ News&PhotoFeatures).

Washington DC is honoring the 16th President with a four-month cultural tourism celebration, Living the Legacy: Lincoln in Washington, DC. Running through April 30, the promotion examines Lincoln’s life through more than 80 exhibitions, performances, lectures and tours, plus themed packages and offerings at DC’s hotels and restaurants. The promotion is produced by The American Experience Foundation in partnership with Destination DC and Cultural Tourism DC. (To find out more about Lincoln in Washington, DC events, go to

Living the Legacy: Lincoln in Washington, DC is part of a national commemoration developed by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission (ALBC). Tasked with planning a “fitting and proper” national celebration of the 16th President’s 200th birthday in 2009, the commission’s members are appointed by the President and Congressional leaders, and include political leaders, jurists, historians, and collectors. The ALBC aims to renew Americans’ appreciation of Lincoln’s ideals of freedom, democracy and equal opportunity, and to encourage all people to “live the legacy.” Just about every state is participating in some way in this national Lincoln Bicentennial celebration, and one site, HYPERLINK, can lead you to all of them.

Expect big things in the places which claim him as a native son: Kentucky where he was born, Indiana where he lived from the age of 7 to 21 ( has information), and Illinois where he practiced law and became Springfield’s Representative to Congress.

Monday, 2 March, 2009

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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