Tag Archives: George Washington

A Smithsonian smorgasbord of awesome objects

I used one of my free afternoons in Washington to take a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of American History.  I hadn’t been inside since the renovations that wrapped up in 2008.  I like the changes; the new halls are much more open and inviting, and easier to navigate.

But as I’ve said before, what I’m really after when I visit the NMAH isn’t so much interpretation as the chance to stand in the presence of iconic “superstar” objects—the things the Smithsonian has because it’s, y’know, the Smithsonian.

And hoo boy, does the NMAH have them in spades, especially in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  From the French and Indian War through the War on Terror, it’s nothing less than a comprehensive military history of the United States in exhibit form, bristling with incredible artifacts.  One of them—Gen. John Pershing’s WWI desk—is right outside the exhibit entrance.

I was mostly drawn to the Rev War stuff, of course.  Hessians of the Ansbach-Bayreuth Regiment surrendered this flag at Yorktown.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring pieces in the exhibit are personal items worn or used by George Washington: epaulets, sword, camp stool and chest, and 1789 uniform.

While we’re on the subject of generals and their apparel, here’s the uniform coat Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans…

…and William Sherman’s hat, along with the sword he carried at Shiloh.

If you visit the McLean House at Appomattox today, the chairs inside the parlor are reproductions.  Here are the originals, in which Grant and Lee sat to hash out the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

If you’re going to be a frontier officer, you might as well dress like a frontiersman.  Here’s George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat.

And we haven’t even gotten to the twentieth century yet.  You could easily spend an entire day in the Price of Freedom exhibit—and if you can’t visit yourself, you can check out the artifacts online—but there are treasures on every floor of the NMAH.  Some of the most remarkable are in American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which boasts the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence…

…and the box Washington used to store papers from the Constitutional Convention.

Here’s an object with a Tennessee connection.  Davy Crockett received this ceremonial hatchet from a group of admirers in 1835.

Some of the coolest objects are in the NMAH’s maritime exhibit On the Water.  Here’s some ammo recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.

I’ve mentioned my interest in the history of whaling before, so I was delighted to find a section of the maritime exhibit devoted to it.  Here’s one of the basic tools of the trade.  Once this harpoon’s toggle head sank into a whale’s flesh, the rear prong sprang outward, holding the blade fast.  Think of it: Men climbed into small boats and used these things to wage close-quarter battles to the death against sixty-foot leviathans on the open sea.

The twisted iron below, wrung out of shape by a diving whale, is mute evidence of how fierce these contests could be.  That thing gave me chills.  It brings to mind Ahab’s remark about Moby Dick bearing harpoons “all twisted and wrenched in him.”  You can also see some of the improvements in the whalers’ arsenal that became more common in the late nineteenth century.  The harpoon gun and the exploding harpoon head, patented by Sven Foyd in 1870, allowed whalers to take down even the largest and fastest species.

A whaleboat outfitted for the chase:

With their prey dead, the whalers towed the carcass back to the ship and lashed it alongside.  Some men donned “monkey belts” like the one below to hang over the vessel’s side, where they stripped the blubber to render it into oil.  It was messy, dangerous work.

Chopping blades hacked the strips of blubber into “Bible leaves,” while skimmers and forks were indispensable tools around the boiling vats.

At the end of the day, of course, whaling was a business.  Ships’ logs recorded the number of barrels of oil obtained from each kill.

Whaling voyages were long; many ships stayed at sea for years at a time.  Scrimshaw carvings in teeth and bone helped sailors pass the time.

The NMAH also has an extensive collection of objects related to mass media and pop culture, but as a serious history professional, I wasn’t about to sully my intellect wi—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT THE BATMOBILE!?

Indeed it is, and it’ll be parked at the Smithsonian for three years.  And maybe it’s as appropriate an object as any for wrapping up a visit to NMAH.

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A look at the Museum of the American Revolution

Most of you probably know that the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  I set aside some time to visit while staying in Pennsylvania.  I’m happy to report that it exceeded my expectations.

The MAR’s use of technology, immersive environments, and full-scale tableaux with figures has invited comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  Personally, though, I found the MAR much richer in content, more judicious in its use of bells and whistles, and far more impressive in its assemblage of original material than the ALPLM.

At the Springfield museum I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that the designers were deploying all the latest gizmos (holograms, smoke, and deafening sound effects) not because each gimmick was the best tool for a particular interpretive need, but because the gimmicks were cool and they had money to burn.  To borrow a phrase from my favorite film, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  I never got that impression at the MAR.  The content, and not the medium, is in the driver’s seat.

There’s quite a bit of stagecraft and showmanship, but it serves a pedagogical purpose.  An interactive panel, for example, allows you to zero in on passages in Revolutionary propaganda pieces to dive into the meanings of particular phrases, or to place each document on a timeline of broader events.

Figures in life-size tableaux are so prominent at the ALPLM that you almost get the impression they’re the main course of the meal, with the artifacts as a garnish.  Not so at the MAR.  The tableaux in Philly are interpretive tools, the icing on the cake.  But they’re also quite evocative.  Here the artist-turned-officer Charles Wilson Peale encounters a bedraggled fellow soldier during the Continental Army’s disastrous retreat in late 1776.  The man turns out to be his own brother, barely recognizable after weeks of hard campaigning.

But the heart and soul of the MAR exhibits are the artifacts, and they’re spectacular.  Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable assemblage of objects from the Revolutionary era.  Weapons used on the war’s very first day at Lexington and Concord…

…a timber from the bridge where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired…

…Washington’s uniform sash…

…a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems…

…the sword Hugh Mercer carried when he fell at Princeton…

…John Paul Jones’s spyglass…

…and the museum’s crown jewel, Washington’s headquarters tent, with a place of honor inside its own auditorium (where photography, alas, is not permitted.)

Ordinary civilians and soldiers get representation, too.  A simple canteen carried during the campaign for New York…

…an original fringed hunting shirt, one of only a handful still in existence…

…the remnants of Hessians’ caps…

…and an especially poignant object, a pair of slave shackles small enough to fit a child.

Each exhibit case bristles with so many fascinating artifacts that part of the fun of touring each gallery is the anticipation of what you’ll find in the next one.

Of course, a successful exhibit requires not only objects for the cases, but the proper interpretation and contextualization of those objects.  Here, too, the MAR impressed me.  The introductory film provides a solid introduction to what was at stake in the Revolution, and the exhibits place the struggle for independence in the context of wider transformations across the British Empire.  The museum’s narrative gives us the Revolution’s heroism and its high ideals along with its contradictions, unfulfilled promises, and the fearsome cost in suffering it imposed on the people who lived through it.  If any layperson came to me asking where they could get a sound and incisive overview of the subject, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them there.

There are only two aspects of the museum I’d criticize.  I’m pleased that the MAR sets aside significant space for the Revolution’s frontier and Native American dimensions.  But the Native perspective is almost entirely that of one particular tribe: the Oneidas, who (perhaps not coincidentally) made a substantial donation to the museum.  The focus on a single tribe has its advantages; visitors get a compelling look at the Oneidas’ difficult decision to support the American cause.  The drawback is that there isn’t much room left to tell the stories of other Indian communities, many of whom made very different choices.  Additional space devoted to the tribes that took up arms against the young United States or tried to play different powers against one another would convey a more well-rounded, representative portrait of the Revolution’s impact on Native Americans.

My other criticism owes a lot to the fact that I’m a Southern Campaign guy.  Many popular presentations of the Revolution give short shrift to the war in the South.  You get thorough coverage of the battles in the North, but once the war moves to the Carolinas and Georgia it’s only a few general remarks about partisan warfare and perhaps a reference to Morgan’s tactical master stroke at Cowpens.  Cornwallis ends up in Virginia to surrender to Washington and the French, but the details of how he ended up there are often sketchy; it’s almost as if Yorktown was a freak accident.  The MAR’s coverage of the war unfortunately follows this formula.  The exhibits on the war’s beginnings in New England, the fall of New York, Washington’s counter-thrust across the Delaware, Saratoga, the capture of Pennsylvania, and Valley Forge are superb, but when the narrative reaches the war in the South, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.  The gallery devoted to the Carolinas and Georgia is given over mainly to Cowpens, with some remarks on initial British successes, the relationship between the Southern Campaign and slavery, and a bit on the viciousness of partisan fighting.

Still, if the exhibit on the war in the South is more or less a Cowpens gallery, it’s an exceptionally impressive Cowpens gallery.  The life-size figures of Tarleton’s dragoons convey something of their fearsome reputation…

…and I got a kick out seeing artifacts associated with the units mauled at Cowpens: the 71st Highlanders, British Legion, and 17th Light Dragoons.

I should add that the skimpier treatment of the South applies only to the galleries devoted to the war itself.  In its treatment of the Revolution’s other dimensions, the MAR’s geographic balance is admirable.  You never get the sense that the non-importation movement was solely a Boston affair.

And in any case, I don’t want to dwell on those few things about the museum that irked me, because the experience as a whole was so remarkable.  I enjoy museums, but it’s not often I get so excited while I stroll through one.  This is the American Revolution for everybody—enough breadth to encompass the story, enough showmanship to engage visitors of all ages, and more than enough striking material on display to satisfy even the most hardcore history buff.  From now on, anyone planning that historical sightseeing trip to Philadelphia is going to have to budget for an extra day.  The MAR is a first-rate destination in its own right, and one nobody should miss.

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A few highlights from Valley Forge

The harshest winter of the war wasn’t 1777-78, but the place where the Continental Army toughed it out has become synonymous with the hardship and perseverance associated with the Revolution.  It’s on every Rev War buff’s bucket list, so I had to take a day off from scanning microfilm to visit while I was in the area.

Valley Forge’s prominent place in American sentiment was evident from the crowds.  Acre for acre, it was possibly the busiest national historical park I’ve visited with the exception of Gettysburg.  It was one of the busiest places in America during the months the army spent there, too.  In fact, the encampment was one of the country’s largest population centers.

The army’s first camp during the siege at Boston was a hodgepodge of structures.  Valley Forge, for all its misery and squalor, at least had standardized cabins laid out in regular lines.

If the reconstructed accommodations for officers look quaint and cozy…

…the prospect of spending weeks in the enlisted men’s quarters is downright chilling.

The memorial arch is one of the most impressive monuments I’ve ever seen at a Rev War site.  Civil War battlefields tend to be more ostentatious in their adornment.

Pennsylvania has its own monument to native son Anthony Wayne.  The army arrived at Valley Forge not long after Wayne’s defeat at Paoli.

Washington had much finer quarters than the common soldiers, but the material perks came with a crushing weight of responsibility.

He shared the home with his “family” of staff and servants, whose accommodations were more modest—though still far preferable to the cramped huts of the enlisted men.

Valley Forge was in the Goldilocks zone for a winter encampment: close enough to occupied Philadelphia to keep an eye on the British, but far enough away to provide some security.  The terrain also made it a position amenable to defense.  In the same way, several factors made it an ideal location for the iron production that gave it its name: abundant wood, running water, and ore.  British troops burned the ironworks not long before the Continentals moved in.  Archaeologists dug up traces of the forge in the twentieth century, and some of the bits and pieces are on display near Washington’s headquarters.

Henry Knox set up the artillery park in a spot from which he could rush cannon to any point in the event of an attack.  Luckily for the Americans, the British never mounted an assault on the encampment.  (Sir William Howe wasn’t exactly a go-getter.)  The only combat at Valley Forge was a skirmish between Americans and redcoats before the whole Continental Army moved in.

The place wouldn’t be complete without a monument to Baron von Steuben…

…gazing out over the field where the Continentals celebrated the Franco-American alliance with a feu de joie.

The Washington Memorial Chapel is an active Episcopal church, and one of the loveliest features of any national historical park.

It’s also one of the few churches in the country with its own Rev War archaeology exhibit.

 

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Across the Delaware

The crossing of the Delaware River is probably the Revolutionary War story we cherish the most, or maybe a close second behind Paul Revere’s ride.  Since I’m spending the month within walking distance of the site where it went down, I had to head over and check it out for myself.

Perhaps I should say the sites where it happened, because Pennsylvania and New Jersey each have a historic park on their respective banks of the Delaware devoted to Washington’s crossing.  Here’s the view from Washington Crossing Historic Park in the Keystone State.

Washington’s army made it across without mishap.  I haven’t been so lucky.  A couple of days ago I drove over to New Jersey for some groceries, and I got so caught up in the historic view from the bridge that I forgot how doggone narrow it is.  There went my passenger side mirror.  Looks like I’ll be visiting an auto shop when I get home.

Washington himself stands atop a column near the visitor center, wrapped in his cloak and gazing across the water toward Trenton and the Hessian garrison.

Closer to the riverbank, near the spot where the troops likely embarked, is a more modest monument.

WCHP’s visitor center boasts a relic of the Franco-American alliance.

If you take the tour, you’ll get an up-close look at the Durham boats the reenactors use for the annual commemorative crossing.  They seemed larger in person than I was expecting.

If you peer inside, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of seats.  Leutze was quite right to paint Washington standing.  It’s all those guys sitting around him that make the painting inaccurate.  (Well, that and the sunlight.)

The first time I drove into town, I freaked out when I spotted the McConkey Ferry Inn.  I don’t remember where it was—I think it was that A&E movie with Jeff Daniels—but somewhere I’ve seen a depiction of the crossing where Washington sets up his headquarters here.  It was the one thing at WCHP I was most excited to see.  Turns out it wasn’t Washington’s HQ after all; in fact, it wasn’t even there in 1776.  The oldest parts of the current building date from 1790.  Samuel McConkey was operating a ferry from this spot that Christmas night, but nothing remains of the Rev War-era structure except the basement.  Still, this is a nicely restored building, and well worth a visit.

A few miles down River Road from the McConkey inn and the visitor center is the park’s upper section.  Tradition holds that American troops monitored enemy activity from atop Bowman’s Hill.  There’s little evidence they did so, but at least we got an impressive tower out of the story.  Built during the Great Depression, it commemorates the Continental occupation of the area during the winter of ’76/77.

An ascent to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower gives you a nice view of the region the Americans and Hessians were contending over.

This structure was there during the time of the crossing: the Thompson-Neely House.  Home to a prosperous milling family, it became a hospital for sick and wounded Continentals when the army moved in.  William Washington, who went on to dramatic exploits in the Southern Campaign, spent time here.  So did James Monroe, another Virginia officer who had quite a career ahead of him.

Washington and Monroe made it through that winter alive, but for James Moore, a New York captain of artillery, the Thompson-Neely property was the last stop.  He’s buried not far from the house…

…alongside comrades whose names are unknown.  Moore’s original gravestone is on display in the visitor center.

The graves face the Delaware Canal, which dates to the 1830s.  Ever wonder how the Pennsylvania coal that powered the Industrial Revolution’s factories got from point A to point B?  Here’s your answer.  Boats laden with anthracite were hitched to mules, and the mules walked along the canal bank, pulling the cargo behind through the water.  The advent of steam engines marked a revolution in manufacturing, but it took old-fashioned animal power to keep the machines going.

Over on the New Jersey side of the river is Washington Crossing State Park.  If you’re an artifact aficionado, don’t miss seeing Harry Kels Swan’s exceptional collection of Rev War objects in the museum.  The exhibit cases are packed to bursting with muskets, bayonets, swords, personal items, and documents signed by a who’s who of Revolutionary luminaries.  The officer’s model Ferguson rifle is especially nifty.  (Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, so no eye candy here.)

While McConkey handled ferry traffic from the Pennsylvania side, Garret Johnson operated the ferry from Jersey.  The Johnson Ferry House is still there, and since it’s just uphill from the riverbank, there’s a good chance Washington and the other high-ranking officers spent time inside, cursing the awful weather and anxiously awaiting the end of the operation.

Here’s the view from the Jersey side, looking back toward Pennsylvania.

While Durham boats carried the troops, the artillery and horses crossed over on flat-bottomed ferry boats like the one you can still see at the New Jersey landing site.

The Garden State has its share of monuments devoted to the crossing, too.

Finally, this trail past the Johnson Ferry House follows the same road the soldiers took to their victory at Trenton—a victory born of equal parts audacity and desperation.

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George Washington’s gritty origin story

Seems like all the heroes are getting their origin stories re-told.  Batman Begins, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, GothamAnd now this…

New Line has closed a deal to acquire The Virginian, a formative period action thriller about Founding Father George Washington before he found his place in defiance of the British Army. The script is by Michael Gunn, a protege of Aaron Sorkin. This one has had more than its share of buzz around town, because agents of talent have asked to read it on behalf of their star clients, though there is no star attached at this stage. Donald De Line will produce. Deal was mid-six figures.…

The script’s movie potential is best described as Last Of The Mohicans meets Braveheart. A down-and-out, young George Washington — desperate to join the British Army — accepts a dangerous mission to conquer a French fort and save the American colonies.

Wait, mid-six figures?  Geez, maybe we really should get on that Southern Campaign script.

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A walk in Yorktown

For those of us who are crazy about early American history, there aren’t many places better for spending a few days than Virginia’s Historic Triangle.  Jamestown and Yorktown—the two places where England’s colonial experience in the future U.S. began and ended—are right there within a short distance of each other, with Colonial Williamsburg in between.

I just visited the triangle for the first time in over a decade, where I kicked things off with a stroll around Yorktown.  Here are a few highlights.

British redoubt #10, captured by a party under Alexander Hamilton on the night of October 14th and incorporated into the Americans’ second parallel:

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Redoubt #9, assaulted by the French on the same night:

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Grand French Battery:

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The Moore House, where officers from both the Allied and British armies met to negotiate the terms of surrender:

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Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:

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Site of the French artillery park:

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An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:

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The Victory Monument:

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One side benefit of visiting the battleground is getting some spectacular views of the York River:

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In the town, a few structures that were present during the siege are still standing, such as Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s house:

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Nelson’s home took fire during the siege.  The cannonballs embedded in the walls are twentieth-century additions…

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…but the effects of the originals are still evident:

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Before the war, Yorktown was an important tobacco port.  Here’s the custom house:

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Grace Episcopal Church dates from the 1600s and is still in use:

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The planter and the railsplitter

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Washington and Lincoln usually rank among the more admired presidents, but most people don’t consider them in light of each other.  Presidents’ Day seems like an appropriate occasion to compare and contrast these two men who had little in common except the office and above-average height.

Interestingly, recent years have witnessed renewed historical attention to both Lincoln and Washington as leaders of men.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller on Lincoln and his cabinet turned the phrase “team of rivals” into a catchphrase, while John Ferling has argued that Washington was a much more deft political operator than other biographies have indicated.  Both men displayed an ability to handle opposition, but they approached interpersonal conflict in different ways.

Ferling has written that during the Revolutionary War, Washington felt especially vulnerable to criticism.  He was particularly sensitive when he thought critics were comparing him to powerful rivals, as he believed to be the case after the fall of Philadelphia, fearing a plot to oust him from command was in the works among his detractors in both Congress and the army.  Lincoln faced his fair share of criticism, too, but his skin was thicker than Washington’s.  If Lincoln and his rivals never constituted a true “team”—dissensions and divisions plagued the cabinet, and several of its members didn’t last the duration of Lincoln’s first term—he was nevertheless more adept at keeping discordant elements in check than the sensitive Washington.

“Abraham Lincoln, the Martyr, Victorious,” by John Sartain. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-pga-03258).

The two men also differed in their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the art of persuasion.  Washington wasn’t known for his rhetorical gifts; his most well-regarded work of prose, the Farewell Address, was partly the work of Madison in its first draft form and Hamilton in a later one.  But Washington was physically imposing and formidable, and he knew how to magnify his physical qualities with a little stagecraft.  When he arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, he was decked out in military uniform, prepared to make a striking impression.

And he knew how to play on an audience’s emotions by letting his formidable exterior slip a little, as he did during the unrest in the Continental Army at Newburgh in 1783.  Amid reports that disgruntled officers wanted to use the army to pressure Congress over a lack of pay, Washington addressed the men at a meeting on March 15.  Fumbling over a letter from a member of Congress that he intended to read to them, he donned a pair of glasses, stating, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”  The officers were deeply moved by this rare show of weakness from a man noted for his vigor and powers of endurance.

Gangly and awkward, Lincoln could never command a room simply by walking into it, as Washington could.  What he lacked in imposing presence, he made up for with his ability to craft compelling arguments and lyrical prose.  When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, one member of the audience found him “so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.”  Eventually, though, the clarity of Lincoln’s ideas and the power of his words overcame the awful first impression and won his audience over. “I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities,” the eyewitness remembered.  “Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.”  At Newburgh, Washington used his physical presence to make up for what his prepared remarks lacked.  At Cooper Union, by contrast, it was only Lincoln’s ability as a public speaker that overcame his ungainly appearance.

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Auditions for a crossing

Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington.  I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call.  Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing.  (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)

But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years.  Think  American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats.  It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.

I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role.  There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced.  Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.

Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right.  Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved.  He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text.  I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.

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The sequester and slavery in the City of Brotherly Love

We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go.  It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.

I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force.  We hit the trail anyway.  I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.

Something like the sequester, for example.

To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love.  I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip.  We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.  I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage.  Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space.  In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections.  So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.

Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum.  With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat.  I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time.  Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.

So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer.  You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed.  If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…

Image via news.moviefone.com

…it was sort of like that.

Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones.  But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits.  The park’s website gave no information.  I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.

On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.

Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places.  It’s an awesome park.  We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside.  The original was demolished in 1883.

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And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.

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People have been paying their respects here for a long time.

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The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building.  I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed.  There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day.  It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.

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I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time.  The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.

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We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground.  Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.

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One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet.  It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800.  A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.

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It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.

Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there.  As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.

There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here.  Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.

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Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter.  By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free.  The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges.  Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.

Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated.  As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household.  Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children.  Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.

It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully.  The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible.  The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development.  This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams.  Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.

I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office.  To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels.  It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.

I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP.  I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative.  Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites.  I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system.  I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken.  The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country.  If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.

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A few historic highlights in the Big Apple

We didn’t focus as strictly on historic sites in New York as we did in Boston, but we did manage to do a little heritage touring on our last day in the Big Apple.  We made a point of visiting Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, site of the nation’s first Capitol and George Washington’s first inauguration.  The original building is gone, but today an impressive classical structure and a statue of Washington mark the spot.

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Inside the building is an exhibit on the trial of colonial printer John Peter Zenger, arrested for publishing articles critical of New York’s royal governor.  Zenger’s 1735 trial for seditious libel in the original Federal Hall—at that time it was New York’s City Hall—proved to be a landmark case in the history of freedom of the press.  His lawyer argued that demonstrably factual statements cannot be considered libelous, the jury agreed, and Zenger walked away a free man.

You’ll also find Washington’s inaugural Bible inside, on loan from St. John’s Lodge…

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…and the stone on which he stood while taking the oath of office.

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After the inaugural ceremony, Washington attended a service at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.  He continued to worship there while the capital remained in New York, and you can still see his pew, right underneath an oil painting of the Great Seal of the U.S.

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On the east side of the church is a memorial to Gen. Richard Montgomery, killed while leading the attack on Quebec at the end of 1775.  Montgomery’s remains were moved to St. Paul’s with a great deal of fanfare in 1818.

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Unlike its mother church, St. Paul’s Chapel made it through the great New York fire of ’76 and is now the oldest church building in the city.  In fact, surviving catastrophes has been something of a hallmark of St. Paul’s.  It’s right next to the World Trade Center site, but miraculously came through the 9/11 attacks without any major damage.  Visitors left thousands of stuffed animals, flowers, cards, and other memorials around the church after the attacks, and some of these mementoes are on exhibit inside the sanctuary.  (You can see a few of them in the photo of Washington’s pew.)  Emergency personnel working at the WTC site stayed at St. Paul’s during the recovery effort.  And the building is still there, a dozen years after that awful September morning and more than two centuries since Washington stepped inside on the very day American government opened for business.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites