Are you a fan of politics, presidential history, or even just American history? If so, you should spend some time in Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia calls itself the “birthplace of Presidents” and, of the country’s 44 leaders, seven of them have firm roots in Virginia. This includes several of the nation’s Founding Fathers, men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Virginia has more presidential landmarks and homes than any other state, so it’s possible to construct a nifty little road trip that will enable you to take in a treasure trove of American history.
The life of George Washington
Begin your journey just south of Washington, D.C. at Mount Vernon
, the longtime home of George Washington. He lived there on the banks of the Potomac River with his wife, Martha, for four decades. Today, the property looks as it did in 1799, the year of Washington's death. You can tour Washington’s home and other buildings on the property, pay your respects at his tomb, and learn more about his life through exhibits and videos in an on-site museum and education center.
Less than two hours further south, you'll be able to see the region that shaped the young man who would become the country’s first president. At the George Washington Birthplace National Monument
, tour the site of his birth, an approximate replica of his first home and the family burial ground. And if you want to take in every presidential landmark possible, then this part of the state also has historical markers
that commemorate the birthplaces of presidents James Madison and James Monroe.
From here, it’s an easy drive back to Fredericksburg, where you can visit Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm
. If you believe in the legends
that surround Washington’s young life, then this is where he would have chopped down a cherry tree and threw a silver dollar across a river.
While you’re in Fredericksburg, you can also visit the James Monroe Museum
. Located on property that was once owned by the fifth president, the museum has a large collection of Monroe’s artifacts and official papers.
John Tyler and William Henry Harrison
Although their names may not ring out across history, Harrison and Tyler were the country’s 9th and 10th presidents. Tyler was actually Harrison’s vice president and took over when Harrison died during his first year in office. Interestingly, both of these men have roots in Charles City County, about one-and-a-half hours south of Fredericksburg.
Harrison’s political career was forged in Indiana, but he was born in Virginia and his family home at Berkeley Plantation
is an important landmark. It was the home to several generations of the Harrison family, including Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, the bugle call “Taps” was first played here in 1862, and the grounds were the site of the first official Thanksgiving service, conducted by English settlers in 1619.
John Tyler, meanwhile, spent much of his life in this part of Virginia. His estate at Sherwood Forest
, where he lived for 20 years, is open to the public. His birthplace
at nearby Greenway is noted with an historical marker and his other residence at Woodburn is still standing but is in private hands.
Next, head about an hour west to Richmond. The most interesting presidential attraction here is Tuckahoe Plantation
, the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson. You can tour this 18th century Virginia plantation and see the one-room schoolhouse where the future president had his first lessons.
Since Richmond is the state capital, you may also choose to tour the Capitol
building. Three of Virginia’s presidents – Jefferson, Monroe and Tyler - served as governor, and Jefferson helped design the Capitol. Another interesting stop in the city is the Hollywood Cemetery, the final resting place of two presidents
. Monroe and Tyler are entombed quite close to each other. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War, is also buried there.
Thomas Jefferson's retreat at Poplar Forest
It's about a three-hour trek to Poplar Forest
, near Lynchburg, but you'll be rewarded with a National Historic Landmark that has been nominated as a World Heritage Site. An octagonal building that was designed by Jefferson to serve as a personal retreat, it is regarded as one of his most remarkable architectural accomplishments.
The Charlottesville of Jefferson and Monroe
Another symbol of Jefferson's design brilliance can be seen two hours north at his primary residence of Monticello
, near Charlottesville. The country's third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was also a passionate architect. He put many of his ideas into physical form at Monticello, which is featured on the back side of nickel coins. It is so far the only private home in the country that has been designated a World Heritage site. In addition to touring the home and grounds, you can learn about Jefferson in a new 42,000-square-foot visitor and education center. Jefferson’s birthplace at Shadwell
is also nearby and an historical marker notes the site.
Adjacent to Monticello is Ash Lawn-Highland
, the estate where James Monroe lived for a quarter century. Today, it's not only an historic home, but also a performing arts site and host to a summer music festival.
While in Charlottesville, you should also take some time to wander the grounds
of the University of Virginia, which is yet another World Heritage Site that was designed by Jefferson.
Less than an hour from Charlottesville, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the Montpelier
estate of James Madison, the fourth president and one of the prime architects of the Constitution. Visitors can tour the historic home, learn about his life and philosophies of government in the educational center, pay tribute at his grave, and relax in the outdoor temple that he designed with a majestic view of the nearby mountains. Also, the nearby James Madison Museum
is dedicated not only to the former president’s life but also to the cultural heritage of rural Virginia.
Additionally, the birthplace of Zachary Taylor is in this part of the state. The country’s 12th
president was born in Virginia but moved to Kentucky as an infant, so he isn't counted as one of the state’s seven presidents. However, a marker
is located at his presumed birthplace.
Woodrow Wilson became the 28th president after serving as Governor of New Jersey and he lived as a young man in both Georgia and South Carolina. But he was born and spent part of his boyhood in Virginia and it is in the city of Staunton that the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library
is located, adjacent to his birthplace. You can learn about Wilson in the museum and tour the home where he was born.
A perfect ending to this presidential road trip would, of course, be in Washington, D.C. It's only two-and-a-half hours from Staunton and right next to Mount Vernon, where you began the journey. There, you can visit the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, as well as the White House
, where every president except Washington has lived.
Map and directions
Here is a map of the road trip. If you click on the “presidential tour of Virginia” link
, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information.
View Presidential tour of Virginia in a larger map
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