Thursday, April 23, 2009

General Washington, I presume? A cache of our founding father readies for June

April 23, 2009
Posted by Noah

With the June Historical Manuscripts auction rapidly approaching – one of my most favorite categories here at the Heritage Juggernaut – I went catalog surfing, as I am wont to do during late hours of the night, for some of the hidden gems in the auction and (Surprise, Surprise!) there a more than a few and plenty of which are affordable to the extent that even your humble blogger will be placing a couple bids. Which ones exactly I won’t say, because, you know…

In particular there’s a great trove of George Washington lots, especially a few lots that contain his signature, or reference the great man himself. The one I like the best is a 1772 Christmas beer receipt with Washington’s monogram on it and a capital “W” very likely written by the man himself. It’s a cool thing, for sure, to imagine the father of our country kicking back with friends and family at Mount Vernon with some micro brews on Christmas Eve. Washington, and Mrs. Washington, were very protective of any material relating to their private lives. Almost none of it survives today so even a receipt like this that hints at something so casual – a relaxed brew between the Washington clan and friends? What could be more informal? – is an exceptional find.

I have spent the last few months reading about the founding fathers of this nation, Washington in particular, and have come to the conclusion that we are an exceedingly lucky nation to have had a man like Washington for our first President, and lucky bordering on divine for having the first four presidents that we did, regardless of the ideological differences between them.

As far as Washington goes, all I can say is that some men are born for greatness, are simply people of destiny whose every action led them to immortality. Just read a little bit about Washington’s life and career and you learn quickly just how many bullets he dodged – literally – and how many prescient decisions he made in his eight years as president. Time and time again, under pressure from the rival Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, Washington stuck to his Federalist principles and refused to engage our nascent nation in more war with Britain when to do so would surely have been folly. It cost him some measure of popularity at the time, but it insured the survival of this amazing country at a time when more war would have been death. I re-iterate, time and time again Washington somehow managed to steer the clunky ship of state straight down the middle path and keep it afloat at the same time as he attended to almost every other matter.

After Washington, it was Adams who kept the momentum going forward, even if it meant some serious unpopularity – see the Alien and Sedition Act – and just a single term in The White House. Jefferson followed, finding that he had to temper some of his more radical ideas, and added a further philosophical dimension to the idea of America. I wish I had all day to sit and write about this stuff, because I love it deeply and it makes me appreciate just how amazing the very existence of this country actually is. There was no one, literally, no one, who could have held America together in its first eight years other than Washington. No one.

I’m not a particularly jingoistic kind of person – I tend to shun dogma of any kind – but it’s hard not to look at the events of the late 1700s and early 1800s in North America and not be simply amazed by the sequence of events that unfolded, and by the true greatness of the men and women who not only bore witness to those days, but who made them actively happen.

Besides the June auction linked to above, I’ve also looked back in the Heritage archives for the best Washington stuff that’s come through. There’s almost 300 lots, all of them a tangible link to the American who is first among equals, “His Excellency,” George Washington.

It’s easy to get cynical in this day and age, what with the 24 hour news cycle, biased punditry and lifetime politicians – something never intended by Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration – but it’s even better to remember the amazing foresight and passion of those who came before us, and to remember they suffered the slings and arrows of an unrelenting media, in their own way, in their own day.

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