Nov 8, 2016

The First President

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Creating the office of the President: an exploration through objects and personal items of George and Martha Washington.

George Washington likely wore this modest woolen suit at his first inauguration on April 30, 1789. The brown coat and breeches were made of cloth woven at the Hartford Woolen Manufactory in Connecticut. By wearing a suit of domestically-made cloth when most textiles were imported from abroad, Washington demonstrated his faith in American industry. “It will not be a great while,” Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette a few months before the inauguration, “before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress.”

Gift of John Murray Forbes, with appreciation to William D. McGregor, 1877 [W-574/A-B]

The enthusiastic crowds who flocked to Washington’s first inauguration could purchase souvenirs marking the historic occasion. This commemorative copper button features Washington’s initials in the center, encircled by the words “Long Live the President.” A chain surrounds the button’s rim, with a link representing each of the original thirteen states. This design repurposes language familiar to those who had lived under the English monarchy (“Long Live the King”) and emphasizes Washington’s role as unifier of the American colonies.

Gift of Mrs. Lewis Washington, Vice Regent for West Virginia, 1893 [W-547]

George Washington's copy of the Acts passed at a Congress of the United States of America contains key founding documents establishing the Union: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and a record of acts passed by the first Congress.

The most significant features of this book are Washington’s personal notes, penciled in the margins. Washington only rarely inserted notes or markings in his books, choosing instead to make notes on separate sheets of loose-leaf paper. All of his notes in this volume appear alongside the text of the Constitution, where he drew neat brackets to highlight passages of particular interest. In Article Two, spelling out the powers and duties of the president, he added the words “President,” “Powers,” and “Required.” He also marked passages in Article One concerning the president’s power to veto Congressional legislation — a critical element of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances on governmental power.

This neoclassical silver-plated Argand lamp is one of fourteen that Gouverneur Morris bought for George Washington in London in 1790. Eager to have elegant furnishings as well as the latest technology in his executive residence, Washington specifically asked Morris to purchase “patent lamps” after seeing them at the home of a Philadelphia merchant. Patented by Swiss inventor François-Pierre Aimé Argand in 1780, these lamps used a tubular wick and glass chimney to improve airflow, thus creating a light source that was brighter, longer-lasting, and less smoky than earlier oil lamps and candles.

Purchase, 1950 [W-1545/A-E]

In furnishing his executive residences, George Washington wanted to convey that Americans were not unsophisticated and provincial, as European stereotypes often portrayed them. In 1790, when French minister Elénor-François-Elie, Comte de Moustier returned to Europe, Washington took over his New York City residence and purchased many of its stylish French furnishings. Items like this upholstered side chair, part of a matching set, demonstrated to visitors that the American president maintained elegantly appointed interiors despite his distance from the style centers of Europe. The white paint and green and yellow silk upholstery are modern treatments.

Gift of W. W. Corcoran, 1878 [W-217/A]

Between April and May of 1796, George Washington exchanged letters with Virginia statesman Edward Carrington about the context and expectations set forth by the Constitution. After much political debate, the Jay treaty had been approved by the Senate, but the House of Representatives was withholding funding. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were setting the stage for the next presidential election and it was a time of intense discussions about politics and the public good.

Understanding that these discussions were an important step in the relationship between the government and the citizens, Washington wrote to Carrington explaining his perspective on these issues: “Whatever my own opinion may be on this, or any other subject, interesting to the Community at large, it always has been, and will continue to be, my earnest desire to learn, and to comply, as far as is consistent, with the public sentiment; but it is on great occasions only, and after time has been given for cool and deliberate reflection, that the real voice of the people can be known.” He reflected on the fact that the current debates were not about the Treaty itself, but whether or not there should be a treaty at all.

Forging relationships through hospitality comprised a key part of Washington’s duties as president. He and Mrs. Washington hosted dinners so frequently that their household staff used an engraved copper plate to print invitations in advance, filling in the specific date and recipient as the occasion approached. Every Thursday afternoon at four o’clock the Washingtons welcomed ten to twenty Congressmen, foreign dignitaries, and members of the cabinet for multi-course dinners.

Invitation: Purchased by the A. Alfred Taubman Fund, 2004 [MS-5745/RM-1086]

Forging relationships through hospitality comprised a key part of Washington’s duties as president. He and Mrs. Washington hosted dinners so frequently that their household staff used an engraved copper plate to print invitations in advance, filling in the specific date and recipient as the occasion approached. Every Thursday afternoon at four o’clock the Washingtons welcomed ten to twenty Congressmen, foreign dignitaries, and members of the cabinet for multi-course dinners.

Plate: Gift of Henry Lane Eno, 1915; Conservation courtesy of the Life Guard Society of Mount Vernon [W-827]

The Presidential household in Philadelphia was a bustling place. Weekly dinners and receptions hosted by George and Martha Washington required a large amount of food. This food ledger details the food ordered and the associated costs for one week in the Presidential household.  

Alliances with Native American tribes were extremely important to the young United States. George Washington’s administration presented silver peace medals to Native American leaders as gestures of goodwill and attempts to cultivate loyalty to the U.S. government. The design of the 1789 peace medal featured a Native American chief and a classical warrior. Such gifts were prized possessions among Native leaders, who often wore the medals around their necks as symbols of power, as depicted in this portrait of Seneca chief Red Jacket. Washington presented Red Jacket with a silver peace medal of the 1792 design, which replaced the classical warrior with a figure of Washington himself.

Alliances with Native American tribes were extremely important to the young United States. George Washington’s administration presented silver peace medals to Native American leaders as gestures of goodwill and attempts to cultivate loyalty to the U.S. government. The design of the 1789 peace medal featured a Native American chief and a classical warrior. Such gifts were prized possessions among Native leaders, who often wore the medals around their necks as symbols of power, as depicted in this portrait of Seneca chief Red Jacket. Washington presented Red Jacket with a silver peace medal of the 1792 design, which replaced the classical warrior with a figure of Washington himself.

Medal: Gift of The Stanley King Family Foundation, 1999 [M-4034]

As President, Washington knew that he played an important role in influencing the taste of the nation. His 1793 purchase of two scenes of the Hudson River by English artist William Winstanley established Washington as one of the earliest patrons of American landscape painting (a genre that would not become widely popular until the 1820s). Washington displayed these paintings in the executive residence in Philadelphia and, in his retirement, hung them on the walls of the New Room at Mount Vernon for visitors to enjoy.

Purchase, 1940 [W-1180]

On April 17, 1790, Washington paid New York cabinetmaker Thomas Burling £7 for this ingeniously-engineered "Uncommon Chair." It combines the sleek, contemporary design of a French bergère en gondole (or barrel-back upholstered armchair) with a unique swivel mechanism that allows the circular seat to rotate on four bone rollers. Washington must have found the chair to be ergonomically pleasing, as he used it throughout his presidency and for the remainder of his life. Following his return to Mount Vernon in March 1797, he placed it in his study along with the tambour secretary he acquired from Philadelphia cabinetmaker John Aitken.

Purchase, 1905 [W-159]

Martha Washington commissioned Gilbert Stuart for portraits of herself and her husband in 1796. Although George Washington's jaw and mouth look stiff and uncomfortable due to a new set of ill-fitting dentures in the resulting portrait, Stuart was so satisfied with the likeness that he kept the unfinished canvases to complete his many orders for replicas. He created approximately 75 of George Washington, including this example, painted in 1798. Despite repeated requests from Martha Washington and Tobias Lear for the originals, Stuart's portraits of our nation's first couple never made it to Mount Vernon. Today, his Athenaeum-type portrait is arguably the most recognized image of George Washington - a version of it appears on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904 [H-4]

Four months after taking office, President George Washington directed his London agents, Wakelin Welch & Son, "to send me by the first vessel, which sails for New York, a terrestrial globe of the largest dimensions and of the most accurate and approved kind now in use." Dudley Adams, globemaker to King George III, took several months to craft the globe, which Washington undoubtedly consulted throughout his presidency and then placed in his Study at Mount Vernon. After Martha Washington's death in 1802, Thomas Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to purchase it from Judge Bushrod Washington as a "relic." It is among the few rare items that have remained at Mount Vernon since George Washington's lifetime, leaving the property only when conservation work has required it.

Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860 [W-166]

Conservation courtesy of T. Eugene and Joan H. Smith

An upstart seventeen-year-old Rembrandt Peale first painted George Washington in 1795. Almost thirty years later, the artist reworked his life portrait into what he called his "Standard National Likeness," or George Washington, Patriae Pater, which depicted Washington in a stonework oval or "porthole." Peale vigorously promoted this image over the next three decades, executing at least 75 replicas and several prints of it. By popularizing his "perfect representation" of our nation's moral and political hero to icon status, Peale - an advocate of physiognomy or the idea external appearances revealed one's true character - believed succeeding generations of Americans would be enlightened by and elevated to Washington's great nobleness.

Bequest of Luisita L. Cofer, 1956 [H-2062]

Washington’s farewell address embodies the core beliefs that he hoped would continue to guide the nation and remains a statement of the American political purpose.  There were several contributors (Madison and Hamilton among them) to the address and Washington’s final statement to the citizens was well though-out:

“I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness; but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.”

“With slight shades of difference, you have the same Religeon, Manners, Habits & political Principles. You have in a common cause fought & triumphed together--The independence & liberty you possess are the work of joint councils, and joint efforts--of common dangers, sufferings and successes.”

“But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your Interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding & preserving the Union of the whole.”

His address was originally published in David Claypole's American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796 under the title "The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States," the letter was almost immediately reprinted in newspapers across the country and later in a pamphlet form.

George Washington's Mount Vernon
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