Mr. W. on Show

The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic October 6, 1998-June 6, 1999; and the Morgan Library, New York, September 16, 1999-January 2, 2000

an exhibition at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California,

On October 6, when “The Great Experiment” opened, people were lined up by the hundreds outside the great hall of the Huntington Library where it is on display until next June. Before it is packed up and moved to the Morgan Library in New York in September, probably as many as half a million will have come to see it, including thirty or forty thousand schoolchildren. What do people get out of viewing an exhibition of words on paper in glass cases? There are a few portraits and engravings, a bust, a statue, some illustrations from books, some odd pieces of silverware, china, and furniture, but the exhibition hinges on about fifty documents, mostly letters, written by George Washington. His writing is clear, if a little faded, legible enough even to someone not familiar with eighteenth-century handwriting. But the documents are under glass, where only one side of a page can be shown, and no one of them is crucial to an understanding of the man’s life and career. His writings in the thirty-nine volumes published by John C. Fitzpatrick from 1931 to 1944 include 17,000 items. The definitive edition underway at Charlottesville since 1968 will include many more. The Huntington itself has five hundred. So what we have on exhibit is a very small sample indeed. And yet it is a safe bet that more people will look at the sample, probably reading only scraps here and there, than will make their way through any larger selection in print or through a biography of the man, even the excellent brief one (about 45,000 words) by John Rhodehamel for his catalog of the exhibition he curated.

The items on display are listed at the back of the catalog. There would be no point in attaching a detailed description of each, because no one of them matters that much in itself. They do include a copy of the famous Farewell Address (printed, but with Washington’s handwritten marginal notes), certainly the most significant state paper he ever put his name to. And Rhodehamel, who previously compiled the Library of America’s volume on Washington, has picked out enough to cover his participation in all the great events and issues of his times. They show him as a young lieutenant colonel on the expedition to the Ohio Country in 1754 where he provoked the skirmish that eventuated in England’s Seven Years’ War with France. They show him taking command of the Continental Army in 1775 and accepting the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. They show him worrying about the collapse of the Union in the 1780s and launching the new government in 1789. And they show both his dislike of slavery and his dependence on it. But it would not be hard to pick another fifty that would serve the same purpose. What principally distinguishes these from the rest of the Washington corpus is their location in the vaults of the Huntington and Morgan libraries. The exhibition borrows artifacts from the Smithsonian,…

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