American Elephants

George Washington’s Annotated Constitution is Going Home. by The Elephant's Child

George Washington’s personal, annotated copy of the Constitution was sold at auction this week, for $9,826.500. The really good news is that it is going home to Mount Vernon. It was part of Washington’s original private library , and the book will again be housed at the historic Virginia estate as part of the collection at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, currently under construction and set to open next fall.

There are not many annotations, but they are telling. He is more concerned with the limits of the office than its power. Washington was deeply concerned with the example he was setting for the future. He was completely aware of the residual loathing in the country of the trappings of monarchy, and he wanted to set the country on the right path.

“Next to two passages explicating the signing of a bill into law, which he bracketed, Washington  has written, in his tidy tiny cursive, ‘President.’ He has inscribed ‘Presidential Powers’ next to the paragraphs that lay out the president’s role as commander-in-chief, as well as his authority to grant pardons, make treaties and appoint Supreme Court justices.”

“Beneath that , in the paragraph that reads,’He shall from time to time give Congress information of the state of the union,’ Washington has added ‘required,’ and it was he who established the address as an annual event.”

He grasped the importance of ceremony and appearances, yet he wanted to give the office credibility in the eye of foreign powers — who were largely very dubious about this democratic experiment. He sought advice from John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and other friends and advisers. Would the public approve of four grand celebrations a year, how visible should he be? He was first addressed as “Your Excellency,” but when the House of Representatives objected, he agreed to be called “Mr. President.”

Richard Brookheiser, in Founding Father, calls attention to the third paragraph in his first Farewell Address, the Circular to the States. It is a carefully wrought paragraph that consists of only three sentences, the first two enormously long.  It opens with a panoramic establishing shot.

The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable conditions, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity; Here, they are not only surrounded with every thing which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment, but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness than any other Nation has ever been favored with.

He established North America as the stage and Providence as the producer. But he also, at the end introduces a human concept, “political happiness.” He goes on to credit to our account the rights of man, abstract and practical knowledge, the arts, trade, good behavior and Christianity  (so long as it is not superstitious). Then the final climax:

At this auspicious period , the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.

“Washington was saying that responsibility for the experiment’s success was only partly his. He would do what he could. When he distributed the Circular to the States, he believed that his task as a founder and father was done.” It turned out to be less than half done, for he was persuaded to accept another term. But it was only all that he could do. The rest was up to the “Citizens of America;” — up to us. The same position we find ourselves in today. It’s up to us.

The Indispensible Man by The Elephant's Child

The George Washington that most of us see most often is the engraving after the Gilbert Stuart portrait on the one dollar bill.  Reproductions of the Gilbert Stuart portrait and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln used to hang on the front wall of every elementary classroom when I was growing up, with an American flag standing in the corner.

We all know, I think, that George Washington had dreadful false teeth.  A terrible pity, both for the President — because they must have been instruments of torture in his mouth — and because they distract our attention from far more important things about the man. Certainly Washington must have had access to the very best dentists of the day. By 1789, he had only one of his own teeth left.  The teeth were horrible-looking contraptions made of substances like hippopotamus ivory, hinged at the back and operated with springs. He complained that they distorted his lips, and they must have distorted his appearance as well.

Gilbert Stuart was the most celebrated of portraitists.  He trained in London, and was thought to be a potential successor to the famed Sir Joshua Reynolds.  However Stuart was extravagant and fled in debt from London. He turned up in Philadelphia during 1795 , hoping to pay off his creditors by creating a multitude of portraits of the world’s greatest man. Washington sat to him for three separate portraits, and Stuart made hundreds of copies.

According to James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man, Washington and Stuart did not get on.  The portraitist usually kept his sitters amused and their faces alive by a flood of showy and outrageous talk. Washington always felt uneasy at having to remain still and being stared at and was put out rather than being amused.

Stuart, who felt that “artists were fundamentally superior to all other men including Presidents, resented Washington’s formality.  He could not forget what had resulted when, in trying to unstiffen the hero, he had gone to the length of saying, “Now, sir, you must let me forget that you are General Washington and I am Stuart the Painter.  Washington replied (as it seemed to him politely), Mr. Stuart need never feel the need for forgetting who he is and who General Washington is.”

Stuart emphasized, as no other portraitist did, the distortions of Washington’s mouth.  Flexner suggests that since Stuart was known to have angrily used General Knox’s portrait as the door of his pigsty that perhaps the harm he did to Washington’s historical image was somewhat deliberate.

This life mask by Jean Antoine Houdon gives us more clues as to what Washington actually looked like.  He was tall, about 6’2″, and most verbal descriptions mention his ‘roman’ nose, so it was perhaps a little prominent. This is not the face of the Stuart portrait, but looks more probable.

Washington was an outdoorsman who spent much of his life in the saddle, and his complexion would have reflected that — more wrinkles, more weathered.  They didn’t have sunglasses and baseball hats with a brim to keep the sun out of the eyes,  lots of squinting.  The portrait above seems to match the life mask fairly well.  A far cry from the disagreeable Gilbert Stuart portrait.

I’m going a bit out on a limb here, but I spent some years in art school attempting to capture likenesses, and the smallest errors in size and distance relationships can lose a likeness completely.  Also, people see likenesses differently. Some will insist that two siblings look just alike while others will see no resemblance between the same two.  I have no real explanation for that.

I suspect that Gilbert Stuart had such a reputation as a great portraitist, undoubtedly aided by his own self description,  that perhaps people were apt to accept his work as the “right” one.  Portraits are an odd matter. One tries to capture a mobile. alive face that changes its expression constantly and represent it on a flat surface.  If you have ever had photographer’s proofs of pictures of you to choose from, that will explain the problem.  They’re all you, but you’ll like some better than others.

Here are “reconstructions” done by a forensic reconstructionist of Washington at his inauguration, as a general, and at around the age of 19.  They are startling in their realism. I suspect (nit-picky as I am) that the face is too free of wrinkles, and too pinky-white, and not quite rawboned enough.  (I said I was being picky)  But they give you a vastly different impression of the man.  Haul out a dollar bill and compare.  Stuart played a cruel joke on Washington.

Washington didn’t know much about being a general when he was appointed by Congress to lead the American armies, but he was the best we had, and he did fine.  His men loved him, and he gradually taught them to be soldiers.  He was elected unanimously to be President when he wanted nothing more than to return to Mt.Vernon and retire from public life. The people idolized him.  He could have been a king or an emperor, or like some — a dictator for life.  But it was he, with his sterling character, who set the nation on the right path.  He had a horrible temper, and mostly kept it under firm control.  Any of his deeds alone would have made him famous, but in twenty-four years he led the armies, led the country, shaped a constitution, set a nation on its path and then went on home.

ADDENDUM: I especially recommend Richard Brookhiser’s Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington.  It is not a life history, but a moral biography, only 199 pages.  It’s a rewarding book. The portrait above and the one in the header are by Charles Wilson Peale.

Just What is This “Office of the President of the United States?” by The Elephant's Child

When George Washington was elected President, there were so many questions. A Republic was something completely new to the Americans.  What they knew was monarchy, and a very opulent monarchy at that.  They definitely didn’t want to go back to the pomp and circumstance of England.  The new office of the President of the United States needed importance, respect, dignity and what exactly? The people did not rebel against a King in order to establish a new monarchy.

Congress insisted on a salary of $25,000, a huge sum for the time.  Washington accepted it reluctantly, but he spent nearly $2,000 of it on liquor and wine for entertaining.  He had, of course managed an army and a plantation.  In fact, Mount Vernon had more staff than his presidency did.

“Washington was keenly aware that whatever he did would become a precedent for the future. How often should he meet with the public? How accessible should he be?  Could he have private dinners with friends?  Should he make a tour of the new states?”  He sought advice from those closest to him, including his vice-president, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury.  The only state occasions that any of them were familiar with were those of European monarchies.

“Hamilton thought that most people were ‘prepared for a pretty high tone in the demeanor of the Executive,’ but they probably would not accept as high a tone as was desirable.  “Notions of equality,” he said, were “yet…too general and too strong” for the president to be properly distanced from the other branches of the government.” Gordon Wood tells of the dilemmas.

“When Washington appeared in public, bands sometimes played “God Save the King.” In his public pronouncements the president referred to himself in the third person.  His dozens of state portraits were all modeled on those of European monarchs.”

We can be truly grateful that Washington was so aware that he was establishing precedent, and so careful of what he said and did.  He was setting an example, and everything he did was intended to hold the new nation together, to form a more perfect union.

One simple problem was what to call the president.  John Adams had discussed the problem with his colleagues in Massachusetts.  They called their governor “His Excellency”: should not the president have a higher title?  Adams thought only something like ‘His Highness’ or ‘His Most Benign Highness’ would answer.  Washington was said to have initially favored “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.” The Dutch leaders of the States-General of the United Provinces called themselves “Their High Mightinesses” and they were leaders of a Republic.”  Madison managed to get his fellow congressmen to vote for the simple republican title “President of the United States. And that was that.

Washington was relieved when the title question was settled.  But “he still was faced with making the institution of the presidency strong and energetic.” In fact, said Gordon Wood, “the presidency is the powerful office it is in large part because of Washington’s initial behavior.”

Gordon S. Wood: Empire of Liberty; A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Tired of Today’s Politics? Here’s the Politics of 1787. by The Elephant's Child
May 20, 2010, 7:30 am
Filed under: Freedom, Heartwarming, History, Politics | Tags: , ,


Washington’s unanimous election as president was preordained.  He was the only person in the country who automatically commanded the allegiance of all the people.  He was probably the only American who possessed the dignity, patience, restraint, and reputation for republican virtue that the untried but potentially powerful office of the presidency needed at the outset.

Washington, with his tall, imposing figure, Roman nose, and stern thin-lipped face, was already at age fifty-eight an internationally famous hero — not so much for his military exploits during the Revolutionary War as for his character.  At one point during the war he could probably have become a king or a dictator, as some wanted, but he resisted their blandishments.  Washington always respected civilian superiority over the army, and at the moment of military victory in 1783 he had unconditionally surrendered his sword to Congress.  He promised not to take “any share in public business hereafter” and, like the Roman conqueror Cincinnatus, had returned to his farm.  The self-conscious retirement from public life had electrified the world.  All previous victorious generals in modern times — Cromwell, William of Orange, Marlborough — had sought political rewards commensurate with their military achievements.  But not Washington.  He seemed to epitomize public virtue and the proper character of a republican leader.

*Empire of Liberty” A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


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