CASE 1—GETTING TO KNOW THE MAN BEHIND THE IMAGE

CASE 2—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT,PART I

CASE 3—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT, PART II

CASE 4—THE NORTHERN NECK

CASE 5—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART I

CASE 6—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART II

CASE 7—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART I

CASE 8—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART II

CASE 9—PLANTER, POLITICIAN, AND PATRIOT

CASE 10—THE MAN, PART I

CASE 11—THE MAN, PART II

CASE 12—THE MAN, PART III

CASE 13—THE MAN, PART IV

CASE 14—THE MAN, PART V

CASE 15—DEATH AND APOTHEOSIS

CASE 16—PRESERVING THE MEMORY

CLEMENTS LIBRARY

George Washington: getting to know the man behind the image

An exhibit by John C. Dann, Director

William L. Clements Library, May 8 to June 4, 2004

This website is a record of the exhibit, as it appeared in the display cases of the William L. Clements Library. Each page features an image of a single display case and its contents, with details of the artifacts and the accompanying text below. Please click on the images to view enlargements and use the "back" button on your browser to return.

Copyrights to the contents of this exhibit, both text and images, are held by the Clements Library. Permission for use and reproduction must be obtained in advance from the director of the Clements Library. For more information please click here or contact the Clements by mail or phone.

Case 1

Few men have had as profound an influence on the course of recorded human history as George Washington. He precipitated a military skirmish that literally started a world war. It resulted in Britain's conquest of Canada and much of our own Midwest, including Michigan. He served as Commander in Chief throughout the Revolutionary War, the very embodiment of the conflict. As our first President, he endowed our political system with many of the precedents that make the United States the unique nation that it remains today. He was America's "first citizen," the "father of our country," the only President elected unanimously to office.

Yet he is a man little known today as a human being. He possessed a kind of natural reserve and dignity while "on the job" that was almost impenetrable, and held positions of public service most of his life. There was a more relaxed, private side to Washington that family members and close personal friends often saw. He had an ironic sense of humor. Although his own lifestyle was refined and aristocratic, he liked people and had exceptional rapport with the common man. But existing documentation provides only hints and glimpses of it. Any sort of understanding of the man was made difficult during his lifetime by the idealization that society demanded of it's first leader. Americans of the time needed a hero to rationalize the acts of inhumanity and deep personal sacrifice they had to make to bring the United States into existence.

After his death, he was transformed into a symbol, an icon, with little remaining of the flesh-and-blood human being. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that anyone was sufficiently removed from the times of George Washington's era to look at him with any degree of detachment. And by then, the world had changed in fundamental ways. It was increasingly difficult to relate to the colonial and Revolutionary War environment.

Although the passage of time has distanced us even farther from the eighteenth century, the development and acceptance of "scientific" history and archival management has counteracted this disadvantage. The modern emphasis on the preservation and use of contemporary source material to understand the past has provided our generation with vast amounts of information about Washington's life that were unavailable a century ago. The Washington Bicentennial of 1932 brought about the first comprehensive collection and publication of our first President's writings. An editorial project begun in the 1970s and continuing today at the University of Virginia has resulted in the first comprehensive collection of letters written ill him. Previously unknown letters written by Washington continue to surface every year.

The historic preservation movement and advances in the interpretation of historic sites has provided us a far more accurate picture of life in the eighteenth century than was available one hundred years ago. Mount Vernon, celebrating this year the 150th anniversary of its preservation, has also done a spectacular job in assembling physical and written relics of Washington--helping to preserve and accurately portray the world in which George Washington lived.

The Clements Library opened in 1923. It is comparatively young compared to the oldest libraries of Europe--a mere eighty years--but in terms of our country's academic and archival institutions, it was a pioneer. It was the first separately housed "special collections library" at a public university in the United States. It has always played a notable role in the preservation of our nation's historical heritage, and George Washington and his contemporaries have had an important place on the shelves from the very beginning. In the 1920s and 1930s the Clements acquired the papers of General Nathanael Greene, the letters exchanged by Washington and his British military adversaries during the Revolution, and exceptional printed materials pertaining to the Revolution and the Early National period. In the1940s papers of James McHenry, Washington's Secretary of War, and Josiah Harmar, the first commander of the U.S. Army were added to the collections. In the years since, the Library has purchased papers of Anthony Wayne, Jonathan Dayton, John Fenno, Fisher Ames, and many other contemporaries. A decade has not gone by that the collections have not been enriched by a few individual Washington and Washington-related letters of great importance.

The Founding Fathers are in literary vogue these days. The country was blessed with a cast of remarkable characters, including Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Adams--each of them more intellectually brilliant than Washington--but none of them as successful in their careers. Neither Adams nor Jefferson enjoyed easy or rewarding presidencies, and Hamilton, perhaps the most ambitious and capable of all, could not even secure nomination for the office. Although the successes of each of these men owed much to Washington, all of them--due to jealousy and the fact that he didn't always do things the way they wanted--were privately dismissive in their judgment of his abilities. They couldn't quite understand how this man, of limited education and few original ideas, could have sustained immense popularity and national leadership for two entire decades.

George Washington left us a voluminous written record of his career. In his uniquely meticulous, controlled handwriting, he wrote dozens of letters a week throughout his life. Military aides and secretaries multiplied this output. He carefully maintained personal correspondence and financial files of his own, and because he was famous, recipients of letters and documents tended to save them as well. The personal letters, almost always written longhand, are particularly revealing, but even the "official" letters provide windows into the mind of the writer--bits and pieces that give one a sense of Washington's motives, his sense of values, his leadership style.

It is with particular pleasure that the Clements Library celebrates George Washington's 271st birthday with an exhibit of Washington letters and documents. Much of the material displayed here is drawn from the Library's collections, but what makes the exhibit particularly memorable is the inclusion of several "new" documents and letters from a private collection.

Thanks to the survival of these letters, we have an opportunity to get to know George Washington as even his contemporaries could not. Who was George Washington? What made him tick? What were the factors in his family background and early career that made him different from his contemporaries? What were his basic beliefs and instincts? What methods did he use in dealing with people and situations that made him such a remarkable leader? The documentary record is very rich, and many of these questions can be answered.

No effort is being made, here, to retell Washington's life. That is pretty well known. What this exhibit attempts to do is provide a sense of who Washington was and how he met the challenges of his era. He is a fascinating person. He was, and is one of a kind. He is someone every American ought to get to know, because much of our American world, even today, would not exist if he had not preceded us. He did not provide the intellectual underpinnings of Independence or the Constitution. But he believed in them, supported them by word and deed, and by his personal aura of authority, provided these new systems the time they needed to become operational-to become "the American way."

The first half of this exhibit identifies a variety of influences and events that helped to develop Washington's personality and character. The second half, through his original letters, attempts to identify certain personal beliefs, personality traits, and response mechanisms that were notable characteristics of "the George Washington leadership style." While the situations Washington was responding to in these letters may be long gone, the problems we have to deal with in 2003, whether personal, political, or diplomatic, are not so different when reduced to their basic elements. No single individual has ever led the country as long or as well as George Washington, and he preserved his immense public popularity until the end. The challenges he successfully met make those of today seem fairly inconsequential. Might Washington have something to say to us today about leadership, ethics and problem solving? Do his letters provide suggestions about how to deal with people or how to respond to difficult situations? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is mere speculation. But we invite you to "get into the mind" of the man, through his own writings, and think about it!