On The Other Side Of The River

When Kish and I lived in D.C., I don’t think we ever made it to the Maryland side of the Potomac River. We we went to the Virginia side all the time, in Alexandria, and Arlington, and at Mount Vernon. But the Maryland side seemed like No Man’s Land.

Now I’ve finally made it, for work-related meetings. The meetings are in one of those massive, sprawling convention centers that is like a city within a city. It’s got a nice waterfront path, a big Ferris Wheel, a water taxi, and a fine view of a bridge leading to the Virginia side. And, it’s right on the landing path for Reagan National Airport, with planes descending about every two minutes.

So, this is the other side of the river, eh? Who knows? Maybe if I look hard enough I’ll find the silver dollar George Washington supposedly threw across the Potomac.

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Thanks Be To The Essential Man

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of histories and biographies dealing with the American Revolutionary War period and its aftermath.  It’s a fascinating story — and a lot more interesting than the tale of the inevitability of American greatness that we learned in grade school, junior high and high school, long ago.

b4477220555e36e85915d487ac63b5c8One point that has struck me repeatedly as I’ve read is that American independence, and the later welding of the different colonies into a single nation, was a very close call.  There were many instances, during the Revolutionary War, during the Articles of Confederation period, and then as the new nation started to function under the Constitution, when the whole American idea easily could have foundered and the 13 colonies and states could have fractured forever.  The war itself, against the greatest power on earth and fought with a fifth column of Tories opposing the overthrow of British rule, could easily have been lost.  And after the war, as the country stumbled forward into a new, post-colonial world, it became clear that the “Founding Fathers” held to a lot of different notions of what a country should look like, the colonies were wracked by debt that irresponsible politicians were unwilling to pay, and always the scourge of slavery threatened to drive a wedge between the colonies and break them apart.

Inevitably, these near-misses were resolved in significant part through one man:  George Washington.  During the Revolutionary War he was the general who was selected by acclaim and whose reputation for leadership and integrity helped to keep the colonial forces together through repeated disasters.  After the War ended, his willing support of a constitutional convention, and his service as the President of the convention — elected unanimously, of course — gave crucial credibility to the effort to reinvent the government.  And when the new Constitution was finally written, and the new government was ready to start, Washington’s reluctant agreement to serve as the first President — where he deftly mediated between the opposing viewpoints of Jefferson, Adams, Madison,  Hamilton, and others, steered a middle course between the agrarian dreamers and the hard-headed mercantilists, and kept the country functioning, credit-worthy, and out of a war with the British or entanglement with the French Revolution — permitted his thoughtful, deliberate, and typically selfless judgment to set the course for the new nation and establish the many precedents and protocols that have guided the leaders of our country down to the present day,

170px-stuart-george-washington-constable-1797Read biographies of any of the other leaders of early America and you will always see George Washington as a key part of the story, as the figure who had to be persuaded to lend crucial credibility to the cause, as the ultimate decisionmaker, and as the one person who enjoyed heartfelt support from the rock-bound coast of New England, through the mid-Atlantic states, all the way south to the red clay of Georgia.  These days it’s fashionable to poke fun at Washington for his teeth and his careful ways, and to characterize him as a plodder in comparison to the brilliance of the Jeffersons and Hamiltons, but in reality, in the early days of the American experiment, George Washington was the essential man.  The description of Washington as the “Father of His Country” is apt, but it actually may not go far enough in capturing the importance of his central role in holding the early republic together, time and again.  He was the key figure who helped turn 13 squabbling colonies into the United States of America.

This Independence Day, I’m going to reflect for a bit on how very fortunate our country was to have George Washington when and where it did.

Happy Independence Day!

A Colonial Time Capsule

In 1795, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere placed a box under the foundation of the new Massachusetts State House.  On Tuesday, that box was opened — very carefully.

Inside, a conservator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts found five folded newspapers, two dozen coins including a “Pine Tree Schilling” from 1652, a George Washington medal, a Massachusetts seal, and a silver plate made for the occasion by ace silversmith Paul Revere himself.  Even cooler, the silver plate has visible fingerprints on it . . . presumably those of the man whose famous midnight ride warned colonists that “the British are coming” and helped trigger the American Revolution.

Although news reports describe the box as a time capsule, technically that is not correct because time capsules are designed to be opened at a particular date — usually, a century or two later.  Instead, the box is part of a much more ancient tradition of putting material in the foundation of building.  That practice dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and, over the centuries, has been employed in the construction of colossal medieval cathedrals and, more recently, been adopted by fraternal organizations like the Masons.

Indeed, in 1793 George Washington laid such a ceremonial cornerstone in the foundation of the U.S. Capitol building.  That ceremonial cornerstone has never been found and its contents are unknown — although I’m guessing it has played a role in a Dan Brown-type novel or a Nicholas Cage movie.

Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

Reading From George’s Notes

A few days ago the annotated version of George Washington’s copy of the Constitution sole for nearly $10 million — $9,826,000, to be precise.  That price was paid by the very genteel sounding Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association.

That seems like a lot of money, until you start to think about it.  This particular volume was published in 1789, and was prepared specifically for George Washington.  George Washington! It’s nice to know that, not only did we once have leaders like George Washington, but they also read and carefully annotated their personal copies of the Constitution.  (Of course, the linked article describes the book as being in almost pristine condition, which might mean that George Washington didn’t crack it for leisure reading all that often.)

Wouldn’t you love to know what George Washington wrote in his notes to various provisions of the Constitution?  Did he have anything interesting to say about the Commerce Clause?  What did he think would ultimately be the role of the Supreme Court?  A book with George Washington’s notes on the Constitution would be some fascinating living history

George Washington, Their Greatest Enemy

The British National Army Museum has held a contest to identify England’s greatest military opponent, and the winner was . . . George Washington.

The Father of our Country beat out Napoleon Bonaparte, Irish leader Michael Collins, Erwin Rommel, the crafty Desert Fox of World War II, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a World War I opponent and the father of modern Turkey, among a number of other candidates.

How could Washington be considered a greater foe than the likes of Napoleon?  After all, the history of the Revolutionary War is a long litany of defeats and retreats by the outmanned American forces, without many of the brilliant tactical maneuvers that gave Napoleon and Rommel their reputations.  For that reason, some people have belittled Washington’s military prowess.

But one other, important factor distinguishes Washington from Napoleon and Rommel — Washington’s side eventually prevailed.  General Washington never gave up and somehow managed to hold together his rag-tag, underfunded band of soldiers until the French entered the fray.  Washington then teamed with the French to deliver the final blow to the British forces at Yorktown, which led to the Treaty of Paris and the independence of the American colonies.

The loss of the American colonies was probably the greatest defeat ever inflicted on the British during the glory centuries of the British Empire.  So yes, George Washington is a logical choice for England’s greatest military opponent.  He was, as the British themselves recognized, a worthy foe.

A Hound In The House

We’ve inherited a new dog at Webner House.  Her name is Kasey, and yesterday she came to Columbus to join Penny as part of the Webner Kennel Club.

Kasey’s back story is unclear.  She was retrieved from the Erie County Humane Society six months ago and served nobly as a companion for Kish’s Mom.  We’re not quite sure about her age; our best guess is that she is about seven years old.  She appears to have a lot of American Foxhound in her blood lines — which makes getting her around President’s Day particularly appropriate, because the American Kennel Club reports that George Washington bred American Foxhounds and loved the dog.

Although we don’t know much about Kasey’s life so far, we know from experience that she is a sweet, lovable, energetic pooch who is, unfortunately, prone to household accidents.  We’ll have to work on training her up to the high Webner House standards of conduct.  She’ll be sharing sleeping quarters with Penny, which should be an interesting arrangement.