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Not the Man in the Gilbert Portrait

A New Exhibition on Washington

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, March/April 1998 | Volume 19, Number 2

"My movements to the chair of Government," wrote George Washington to Henry Knox in April 1789, "will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution." The very self-confidence that propelled Washington to a successful military and political career, temporarily languished as he prepared to become the first president. It was a stark confession of uncertainty from a man whom many believed was the only person capable of leading the American republic through its first tenuous years.

Washington's journey from a loyal British subject to one of the leaders of the American revolution is the subject of a new exhibition marking the two hundredth anniversary of his death. The Huntington Library, in collaboration with the Pierpont Morgan Library, is mounting "The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic." The exhibition, which opens in October 1998, uses Washington's life as a lens through which to view the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. The exhibition is expressly designed to counteract the idea that the American Revolution was a conservative event and Washington, as the Revolution's leader, a conservative statesman. Drawing on the work of historian Gordon Wood, who also serves as a consultant, the exhibition portrays the revolution as an event that fundamentally altered the political and social fabric of America. By using the class conflicts and peasant uprisings of the French and Russian Revolutions as litmus tests, Wood believes that historians have overlooked the radical nature of what the revolutionaries were trying to accomplish. As he sees it, in the eighteenth century, most people could not conceive of a society that was distinct from government. Therefore, changing the system of government -- throwing out the British and setting up a republic -- constituted a fundamentally radical act that changed the political system and reordered society itself. The revolution also institutionalized basic ideas that continue to shape our society today: the commitment to freedom, equality, and the general well being of ordinary citizens.

While highlighting Washington's role as a radical statesman, the exhibition also explores lesser-known aspects of his life and character. "People commonly think of Washington as the old man in the Gilbert portrait, which was done at the end of his life," says John Rhodehamel, the Huntington curator overseeing the exhibition. "Washington as his contemporaries knew him was more vital."

From an early age, Washington experienced firsthand the inequities of the British imperial system. Born into Virginia's gentry, he found his situation drastically changed at age eleven when his father died. His father left him land, but none of the economic resources necessary to maintain it. There wasn't even enough money from Washington to attend school in England, as had his half-brothers.

In order to establish himself as a gentleman, Washington cultivated relationships with influential Virginia families. He hoped that social connections would make up for his paltry economic resources. In 1749, with the influence of the powerful Fairfax family, Washington received a profitable commission to be the surveyor of Culpeper County. Working as surveyor exposed Washington to the colonial frontier, an experience that fuelled his interest in land speculation throughout his life.

The French and Indian War, which convinced Britain of the need to tighten her military and financial hold on the colonies, provided the deeply ambitious Washington with an opportunity to make a name for himself. In 1753, as a twenty-year-old major in the Virginia militia, Washington carried out a dangerous diplomatic mission. Rushed into print, The Journal of Major George Washington documented his exploits and his personal courage, earning him a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. As preacher Samuel Davies noted in a 1755 sermon: "I may point out to the Public that heroic Youth Col. Washington, who I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a Manner for some important Service to his Country."

The Journal also revealed another facet of Washington's character -- his sheer, naked ambition. While ambition had helped him establish himself as a young gentleman, it also proved to be limiting. In a display of hubris, the newly promoted colonel penned a fifty-page letter to the Earl of Loudoun lobbying for a commission in the British Army, while simultaneously complaining about the lack of respect given to militia officers. Denied a commission, Washington regarded the slight as evidence of the inequity of the British system.

After the French and Indian War, a disappointed Washington resigned his military commission and returned home to Virginia. Settling into Mount Vernon with his new bride, Martha Custis, he struggled to turn a profit growing tobacco. He also pursued his interest in land speculation, acquiring tens of thousands of acres of frontier lands specifically earmarked for veterans of the French and Indian war.

Washington again soon found himself thrust to the center of action as colonial America began protesting its treatment by the British Parliament. "The cause of Boston is the cause of America," declared Washington after hearing about Boston's rebellious response to the 1765 Stamp Act. "It's hard for us to imagine today," says Rhodehamel, "but the idea of taxation without representation was terrifying because it meant that the British could do anything to the American colonists." Many colonists feared that the Stamp Act opened the door to more burdensome taxation measures. Particularly troubling, however, was the exclusion of the American people from the decision-making process. Britain's actions played into Washington's own beliefs that the British colonial system exploited American colonists. While the crises of the 1760s helped foster the discussion of republican ideas among the colonists, few were willing to admit that independence from Britain was an immediate goal.

Colonial sentiments grew more radical in the early 1770s as Britain continued its attempts to pump more revenue from its American possessions. Washington attended the First Continental Congress in 1774, as one of seven delegates from Virginia. At the congress, the colonies proclaimed their autonomous status within the British empire and launched an economic war against the British. After fighting broke out between Massachusetts militia and the British army at Lexington, Washington was unanimously elected "General" of the Continental Army. No other native-born American had as much military experience. Rhodehamel notes that by the time Washington assumed command of the Continental Army, the ambition that had driven him as a young man had been subsumed into working for the American cause. It wasn't that Washington had lost his ambition, but that he recognized the success of Revolution would bring him personal success.

"The Great Experiment" uses artifacts and Washington's own words to illustrate his evolution from gentleman to military officer to well-known political figure. About 130 items will be on display including: hand-written letters by Washington, a family tree, a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, a 1787 edition of the Constitution inscribed by Benjamin Franklin, portraits used to create Washington's likeness on the dollar bill and twenty-five cent piece, letters by Martha Washington describing the hardship conditions in the Continental Army camp, and household items from Mount Vernon.

Many of the artifacts come directly from the Huntington and Pierpont Morgan's own collections. Of particular note is the inclusion of Charles Wilson Peale's full-length portrait of "Washington Before Princeton" (c. 1780). Private collectors and other institutions, such as the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, have also loaned items for the exhibition.

After its October 1998 opening, the exhibition runs for eight months at the Huntington before moving to the Pierpont Morgan Library for four months. Accompanying the exhibition is a catalog, published by Yale University Press, a CD-ROM, and a variety of educational and public outreach programs. Nearly 450 teachers will attend seminars on Washington and receive lesson plans for the 1998-99 school year. The teachers will also take 12,000 students to see "The Great Experiment." The Huntington plans to host a symposium and lecture series to discuss current scholarship on Washington and the Early Republic.

Washington observed to Catherine Macauley Graham in January 1790 that "the establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil society." It may not have been the last experiment of its type, but no other has endured for more than two hundred years.