American Elephants

Obamatax by The Elephant's Child

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.

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