2011-07-07 / Local & State

Traveling Exhibit Seeks To Show ‘Real Washington’

Maryclaire Dale

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – George Washington’s face may stare back every time someone takes out a dollar bill, but more people know the mythology surrounding Washington than the man.

An exhibit opening Friday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia aims to change that by delving into Washington’s own constitution.

“Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon’’ looks at how the first U.S. president became a land surveyor at 16 and landowner by 19. How he micromanaged operations at his Mount Vernon estate from afar while leading the Continental Army. How he wrestled with the slavery question.

And yes, how he took meticulous care of his troublesome teeth, only to lose the very last one during his second term as president.

The collection, mostly culled from artifacts kept at Mount Vernon, will visit nine cities over three years.

Jim Rees, president of Mount Vernon, finds that younger generations know relatively little about Washington, given the recent focus in schools on reading and math.

Rees compared the history textbook he used at his Richmond elementary school to one used at the same school today and found his text had 10 times as much ink devoted to the first president.

“We really think they lose not just the example of a great leader, but one who would be perfect for our time now. He was nonpartisan,’’ Rees said. Washington was so mindful of not displaying favoritism that he formed few close friendships, instead relying on his wife and family for companionship, Rees said. The couple had no children together, but the brood at Mount Vernon included Martha’s two children from her first marriage and later, grandchildren.

Anyone looking for wooden teeth in the exhibit will be disappointed, but visitors can get a close-up view of a set of Washington’s actual dentures, made not with wood but with an equally awkward mix of cow and human teeth set in a lead base, with brass wires and steel springs.

Little wonder Washington’s not smiling in the famous Rembrandt Peale portrait that appears on the dollar bill.

The exhibit also includes reproductions of Martha Washington’s gold wedding dress and plum-colored wedding shoes; life-size models of Washington at various ages (in his younger days, he had red hair); and a diorama of his bustling Mount Vernon estate, which with the help of slaves produced more than 60 crops, and boasted a gristmill and whiskey distillery.

The slave issue is explored through a History Channel video featuring comments from historians and several descendants of Washington’s slaves.

Scholar Edna Greene Medford of Howard University wonders if the popular statesman couldn’t have used his influence to emancipate slaves long before the Civil War. Others laud him for freeing his own 125 slaves when he died _ although he was blocked by law from freeing those Martha had brought to the marriage.

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