Donald Trump had some advice for George Washington.
During a guided tour of Mount Vernon last April with French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump learned Washington was one of the major real-estate speculators of his era. So, he couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound (or any of the other property he acquired) after himself.
“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”
The VIPs’ tour guide for the evening, Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, told Trump Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.
America’s 45th president is open about the fact he doesn’t read much history, or much at all for that matter. In July 2016, Trump said he never read a presidential biography and had no plans to do so.
Though he is an avid fan of George Patton, the flashy, tough-talking World War II general, he has shown less interest in learning about his presidential predecessors or about the office he now occupies. Former White House aides say Trump initially did not know the history of the Resolute Desk, used by presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes, though he now enjoys showing it off to visitors to the Oval Office.
Trump’s lack of interest in presidential history, said the historian Jon Meacham, means that he has “basically thrown out the one data set available to him. We don’t have anything else to study. It’s all you got.” It also stands in contrast to the fascination of other presidents with their predecessors. Even former President George W. Bush — not known as a tweedy intellectual — consumed several presidential biographies while in office.
A spokeswoman for Mount Vernon pointed to a statement posted on the estate’s website at the time of the president’s visit. “We are always happy to extend the famous Washington hospitality to the President of the United States and visiting dignitaries from around the world,” said Mount Vernon Regent Sarah Miller Coulson. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain his interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property, which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn told several people, are far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the Trumps.
A former history professor, Bradburn “desperately tried to get Trump interested in” Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best. He told Trump Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who acquired property throughout Virginia, and what would come to be known later as Washington, D.C.
Trump asked whether Washington was “really rich,” according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini-real estate empire.
“That is what Trump was really the most excited about,” this person said.
If Trump was impressed with Washington’s real estate instincts, he was less taken by Mount Vernon itself, which the first president personally expanded from a modest one-and-a-half story home into an 11,000 square foot mansion.
The rooms, Trump said, were too small, the staircases too narrow, and he even spotted some unevenness in the floorboards, according to four sources briefed on his comments. He could have built the place better, he said, and for less money.
“Mount Vernon has a policy of not providing details about high profile visits outside of the official statements provided by the organization,” a spokesperson for Mount Vernon told POLITICO before this story was published.
After its publication, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association released a statement saying, in part, that “third-party accounts of the Trump-Macron visit released by several media outlets today do not correctly reflect the events that transpired nearly a year ago.” The statement added: “Comments pulled from sources who were not present for the tour do not properly convey the tone and context in which they were delivered.
Many Americans don’t fare much better than the president when it comes to a knowledge of the basic facts of American history — and one person close to the White House said Trump’s supporters aren’t bothered by the fact he isn’t a history buff.
“His supporters don’t care, and if anything they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that he doesn’t know much history, this person said.
A recent survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that just four in 10 Americans today can pass the country’s citizenship exam, which is comprised of several questions about the Constitution and American history, such as “Who did the United States fight during World War II?” and “What is one right granted under the First Amendment to the Constitution?”
But most Americans do not become president of the United States. After their tour of Washington’s mansion, the Trumps and the Macrons dined in the house’s New Room, an experience rarely afforded even to the most exclusive visitors to the property, according to sources familiar with the site’s operations. The previous year, the Macrons hosted the Trumps for dinner in the Eiffel Tower, and the evening at Mount Vernon was meant to be a corresponding gesture.
Mount Vernon, which includes extensive gardens, a farm, a distillery and gristmill, and the tombs of Washington and his wife, Martha, attracts an average of a million tourists a year, including dozens of VIPs, according to its website. Bush visited the site with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2007, and foreign dignitaries from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall have all dropped in while visiting the United States.
Bush also delivered remarks at Mount Vernon in February 2007, at a celebration commemorating the 275th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Bush praised the founding father, whom he said “many would have gladly made King of America,” for ceding power voluntarily.
King George III
“Honoring George Washington’s life requires us to remember the many challenges that he overcame, and the fact American history would have turned out very differently without his steady leadership,” Bush said.
While quickly bored by Washington’s home, Trump has been eager to show off his own residence to guests, and has learned some White House history in the process. He loves taking guests on tours of the White House residence, according to current and former aides. He particularly enjoys pulling them into the Lincoln Bedroom and has learned about the copy of the Gettysburg address on display there so that he can talk about it when he plays tour guide.
And despite his criticisms, Trump found something to like at Mount Vernon, too. Among the artifacts preserved there is the bed where Washington passed away from a throat infection in 1799. Trump, who is infamously picky about where he sleeps and resists spending nights away from home, felt out the bedpost and told the Macrons and Bradburn that he approved, according to three people briefed on the event.
March 4, 1797, George Washington did something that put him on a historic pedestal above Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and every past conqueror and crowned head of Europe: He gave up power.
This wasn’t expected of him; most Americans hoped he would remain president, for life, if possible.
He chose instead to return to his farm at Mount Vernon. He yearned for home but also to establish enduring precedents for the nation whose independence he helped painfully win: No man is bigger than the country. The office is more important than any president. Power is a privilege to be wielded and then handed to another.
When Donald Trump visited Mount Vernon with French President Emmanuel Macron last year, he reportedly commented: “If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it. You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”
There are ironies on top of ironies in the father of Trump Tower offering posthumous advice to the father of our country. But the greatest of them is 220 years after George Washington’s death, his name is everywhere and remembered by everyone, largely because he chose not to maximize his own opportunities for self-promotion.
With his offhand comment, Trump inadvertently revealed a key difference between himself and Washington, though no one, friend or foe, is likely surprised. More importantly, he spotlighted the distance between merely temporal fame—essentially, name recognition in one’s lifetime—and the grail of posthumous recognition that motivates so many people in public life, as much now as in the Revolutionary era.
Trump’s comment, while squiring Macron and his wife around Washington’s estate, no doubt reflected the truth of his experiences as a New York City real estate developer, reality-TV star and rookie presidential candidate who defied the odds—and all political norms—to win the office.
In the worlds where Trump forged his reputation, few points were awarded for reticence. The opposite, however, can be true in posterity. In the long, considered judgment of history, selflessness is far more honored than self-aggrandizement.
Washington was neither modest nor lacking in ego. He was, by some measures, the wealthiest American of his age, combining his inheritance with his wife’s fortune and an extremely lucrative series of land purchases that made him proportionally far wealthier than his 43rd successor. But few people today either know or care that he was so vastly rich. He’s entirely remembered for the qualities that made him an outstanding steward of a young and fragile nation: the good judgment and sense of propriety that led him to put the national interest ahead of his own.
Washington understood that institutions outlive individuals. That may not seem like a radical notion, but it’s striking how unfamiliar it was in Washington’s day. Even more shocking was the idea that one could gain power and esteem by not coveting it. After leading the American Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington made his first decision to retire to Mount Vernon, even though there were calls for him to be the monarch of the new nation.
Eight years later, after the failure of the Articles of Confederation showed the need for a stronger central government, Washington answered the call to become the nation’s first president. After eight successful years, he heeded his own instinct to step down. He was entirely conscious of the statement he was making. He stayed in the temporary capital of Philadelphia to attend the inauguration of his elected successor, John Adams, and then made a point of walking behind Adams as the crowd of worthies dispersed from the podium: The office is more important than any man.
The American tradition that even the most revered former officeholders must humbly stand behind their successors, recognizing that they are only guests in the house of power, is almost entirely the product of Washington’s exertions. So, too, are other traditions handed down from the Washington presidency, including the chief executive’s commitment to share power with Congress and the courts. It was one thing to sketch out such a system of government under the Constitution, but it didn’t become real until individuals—Washington foremost among them—actually chose to abide by those rules, creating a precedent we still follow today.
These concepts are now so widely accepted that they seem inevitable, like the products of natural law. They are the pillars of the American system. And even in a presidency as committed to pushing boundaries as Trump’s, they are barriers he can’t cross.
None other than King George III of the United Kingdom understood the force of Washington’s precedent, how in renouncing power for himself he was bestowing power on the nation he helped create. There’s an oft-told story of how the king once asked the British-American painter Benjamin West about Washington’s plans after the Revolution, to which West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”
It’s unlikely that the conversation was so succinct, but the American diplomat Rufus King did relate in a letter a conversation with West in which the painter described the king as saying that Washington’s ability to climb to the heights of power and then climb down “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living” and that “he thought him the greatest character of his age.”
Indeed, at the tail end of the tour of Mount Vernon, a guide stationed in Washington’s study dutifully relates the story that he was the first person in all of history to assume so much power and then renounce it. So all these centuries of reverence, symbolized by the unending stream of visitors to Washington’s home, are the product of a decision not to call attention to himself.
Two hundred and thirty years after Washington assumed the presidency, the nation is shaped by forces Washington couldn’t have imagined—not just technologies like television and social media, but a whole ethos that conflates fame and success, money and virtue, and which gave rise to a leader who literally engineered his own fame through sticking his name on every building, and every product, he could manage.
It’s hard to imagine a more different sensibility than the one that guided the young Washington when, in 1761, he inherited the family plantation. He chose to keep the name his half-brother had given it—Mount Vernon, after Lawrence Washington’s former commanding officer. There is no evidence that he ever considered Trump’s suggestion that he name it after himself.
To this day, the white mansion on a hill remains Mount Vernon, not Mount Washington.
Wikipedia reveals there are currently no fewer than 15 Mount Washingtons in the United States.