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Getting to Know George
Acts of Congress exhibit banner
Getting to Know George is a weekly series leading to the opening of the
Acts of Congress exhibit at the Eisenhower Presidential Library on April 23!
George Washington's personal copy of the Laws of the United States, First Session 1789, known as the Acts of Congress will be on display at the 13 Presidential Libraries.
For tour details, please visit www.archives.gov/exhibits/acts-of-congress


"The Constitution which at any time exists,'till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all." - GW


What was life like for Washington following the war?

Despite Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, two years would pass before the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. General Washington resigned his military commission on December 23, 1783, and bid farewell to his beloved troops. Bearing gifts for his grandchildren, he arrived at Mount Vernon on a snowy Christmas Eve to resume his life as a private citizen -- or so he planned. Eleanor Parke Custis, "Nelly," and George Washington Parke Custis, Jacky's youngest children, were already living at Mount Vernon. Nelly, age four, and Washy, just two, were a godsend to their grandparents, particularly for Martha who had by now suffered the loss of all of her children. Martha's niece Frances, "Fanny," and a number of George's nieces and nephews also lived with them for a time. Now in her mid-50s, Martha's hair was completely gray; visitors remarked on her pretty features and flawless skin. Washington relished resuming his life as a Virginia gentleman farmer, rarely mentioning his wartime experiences. Renovations and additions at Mount Vernon gave it an increasingly grand appearance, especially the spacious piazza with spectacular views of the Potomac River. As a thank you for their loyal military service, Washington's favorite wartime horses, "Blueskin" and "Nelson," were turned out to pasture. Still engaged in animal husbandry, however, he began a breeding program that resulted in the first American mules. Two things, however, kept Washington from enjoying a truly bucolic life at Mount Vernon: the constant stream of uninvited-and expensive!-visitors and emerging evidence that the fledgling nation was in trouble.   


Why was Washington the greatest American celebrity of his age?

George Washington's life would never return to what it had been before the Revolutionary War. People simply would not leave him in peace. Wanting to meet the great war hero in the flesh, they appeared, uninvited, at his front door at Mount Vernon. The Washingtons demonstrated remarkable hospitality as many of the visitors, often complete strangers, sat at his table and ate his food; their horses depleted his supply of hay and grain. Many expressed disappointment that Washington showed absolutely no interest in engaging them with war stories. And, because there was no commercial lodging nearby, Mount Vernon was usually filled with overnight guests. For a man who had a deep longing for privacy, Washington became a prisoner in his own home. Even attending nearby church services became nearly impossible as his presence precipitated large crowds of people who hoped to view the general. Each day, letters, in great numbers, arrived from all over the world. Out of his deep sense of propriety and courtesy, Washington was compelled to try to answer each one. Eventually, he would enlist a secretary to address the avalanche of nonstop correspondence. Whenever he could, Washington escaped to his library, a refuge where he could be alone, albeit temporarily, to lose himself in the political treatises, histories, biographies, and popular literature that he loved.


What were Washington's greatest concerns in the early post-war years?

As was the reality for most Americans, the war had been costly for George Washington. Mount Vernon and its farms stood in extreme neglect and disrepair. Debts had piled up, and, because there was no longer a market for American exports in Britain, there was no way to settle them. For Washington's soldiers, it was even worse. The Continental treasury was bankrupt and most had not been paid in years. Washington and other revolutionary leaders realized that the Articles of Confederation-understandably devised to prevent accumulations of centralized power-had systemic flaws that threatened the survival of the new nation. In a governmental system of nearly sovereign states, the national government had negligible power. It could not repay an enormous war debt, support an army, or address hostile actions among the new states. Washington was alarmed at what he saw: a failing economy, episodes of civil unrest, and the inability of the national government to deal with any of it. Just the same, he stayed on the sidelines publicly -- perhaps realizing that the American people would turn to him and fearing he would be powerless to refuse the call of duty.  But when news of Shays' Rebellion, an armed uprising of western Massachusetts farmers over farm foreclosures, arrived at Mount Vernon, he knew he could no longer remain a bystander. Washington and other leaders of the Revolution, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were absolutely certain that something had to be done or this great experiment in self-government, now held in ridicule by all of Europe, would fail.


What role did Washington play in the drafting of the Constitution of 1787?

It is impossible to overstate Washington's central role in the creation of the United States Constitution. Had he not lent his support, the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 would not have taken place nor would the Constitution have been ratified. Though there was general agreement that the Articles of Confederation was too weak, there was even greater concern that opening it up to revisions was dangerous to the liberties of the People. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had been conferring privately with Washington since 1785 about the need to strengthen the national government. Washington agreed: A strengthened government was preferable to one so weak that it could not carry out the basic functions of government. When Washington announced that he would attend the convention in Philadelphia, he conferred upon it his own immense stature and reputation. Unanimously elected president, his impartial leadership helped to assuage the concerns and suspicions of many Americans. When the deliberations turned to the controversial question of a single executive, the widespread belief that Washington would be the first to occupy the position carried the day. Still there was stinging criticism of the convention and what the delegates had done there. After all, the Continental Congress had only authorized a revision of the Articles; this entirely new instrument had been drafted in secret! Prominent figures of the Revolution like Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and George Mason rejected it outright. And, it was George Washington who advised supporters of the newly framed constitution-the Federalists-that they would have to make a strong case to the American People if it were to be ultimately ratified.  


"Getting to Know George" Series next week will focus on 1789 - 1797: President Washington. Each week a new article will delve into one more chapter leading to the opening of the exhibit. 


Did George Washington wear a powdered wig trivia?

George Washington never wore a wig. Powdered wigs were introduced to the English court with the reign of Charles II in 1660. They became "the" fashion statement for the aristocracy and wealthy through the 18th century. In order to fit a wig properly, the head had to be shaved. Washington, on the other hand, preferred to wear his natural hair long, which he secured with a tie at the nape of his neck. As Washington grew older, he did lightly powder his hair, as was the popular style of the time.   

Explore James Madison's notes of the proceedings and debates of the 1787 Constitution Convention at www.nhccs.org/Mnotes.html.
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