2015-08-13 / Front Page

Washington’s Letter Continues to Resonate

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Curt Viebranz will be the keynote speaker on Aug. 16 at Touro Synagogue for the annual reading of Washington's letter. Curt Viebranz will be the keynote speaker on Aug. 16 at Touro Synagogue for the annual reading of Washington's letter. Of all the historic nooks and crannies to be found at George Washington's Mount Vernon, the favorite "secret" spot of the 400- acre plantation home's President and CEO Curt Viebranz is the wide, accommodating porch of what he calls the Mansion, with its lovely unobstructed view of the Potomac River. It is where, Viebranz says, he gets the greatest sense of the home’s historic occupant and its import as a national treasure. It has also afforded him some moments of time travel. “I started at Mount Vernon on Sept. 17, 2012,” he said, “the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Shortly before 7 a.m. that morning, I stood on the piazza, and watched the sunrise.” The view—across the Potomac to Maryland—transported him back in time. “It is virtually as it was in 1799, the year of Washington’s death, thanks to historic land preservation efforts. It is special.”

Viebranz will be the keynote speaker this Sunday, Aug. 16, at Touro Synagogue for the 68th annual reading of George Washington’s historic letter, written in August of 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport. It was a thank-you note of sorts, for their warm welcome during a visit scheduled after Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution the previous May. Containing the oft-quoted declaration, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” the 340-word document is, in the words of one historian, “a treasure of the entire nation.”

As modern-day ambassador for our first commander in chief, Viebranz’s task will be to establish a greater sense of the writer of the letter, and the power of his legacy. “I’ll argue that one cannot aspire to good citizenship without knowing the story of our founding and Washington’s indispensable role in the creation of this country. Most know of him as the man on the dollar bill,” he added, “but few know about his trifecta: He led the army during the Revolution, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and was twice elected president of the United States. When something needed to get done, all the Founding Fathers turned to him. His examples of leadership and selfless service are perhaps more important today than ever.”

And after 225 years, Viebranz says, the letter, as part of that legacy, continues to resonate. And these days, he suggests, with a poignant urgency: “The annual tradition of the reading of the letter is so important. It has become a moment to remember where we came from. While it is 225 years since its writing,” he pointed out, “it is only six weeks since the Charleston shootings.”

Viebranz came to his position at Mount Vernon via a national search and connections established nearly 40 years ago when he worked at Time, Inc. in New York City. It was hard not to answer when the father of his country came calling. “The opportunity to steward a national icon was very compelling,” he recalled. “Most people don’t know that Mount Vernon was in complete disrepair by the early 1850s—50 years after Washington’s death. A woman by the name of Ann Pamela Cunningham formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union in 1853 and over a period of six years she convinced John Augustine Washington to sell her the home for $200,000, which she raised through a national grassroots effort.”

Some people have great jobs; others have dream jobs. This seems like a great dream job. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the man, Viebranz is the primary fundraiser and first face of Mount Vernon. He and his wife, Cissy, live on the estate. His job is to promote its mission, which is “to preserve Mount Vernon and to educate people around the world about the life and legacy of Washington.” The venue is a vast educational and cultural enterprise, encompassing the estate’s gardens, distillery, gristmill, Pioneer Farm, tombs, library collection and education center. Events range from whiskey tastings, Colonial markets and fairs, and Homeschool Days. “We take no government money,” he said. “We rely on our admission, retail and food operations as well as fundraising to cover our $45 million annual operating budget

One realizes, in talking to him, that so much of the lore and knowledge of Washintoniana is for Viebranz the equivalent of water cooler conversations. “We are the most visited historic home in America,” Viebranz said, “welcoming more than one million visitors a year.” When asked if there is a resurgence of interest in our first chief, he mentions the popularity of such TV shows as “Turn” and the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” In the three years he has been at Mount Vernon, the website traffic has gone from one million hits per year to four million. He was also quick to compare the then and now. “Contrast [the immediacy of social media] with 1789,” he said, “when Washington’s inauguration took longer than expected because members of Congress could not get to the nation’s capital, New York, on time. The roads were too bad.”

“We would like to have Mount Vernon host a presidential debate,” he said, when asked if it had been considered as a venue. “It is the perfect place for bipartisan discourse. Remember, Washington was president before the advent of political parties.” One suspects that, wearing a powdered wig and in full regimental dress, representing the man and all he stood for, Viebranz would make an excellent moderator.

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