Washington was born 285 years ago Wednesday (Feb. 22), an occasion now celebrated in the US as a federal holiday. When the election results were in, in April 1789, Washington faced the minor task of defining the presidency for the great democratic experiment known as the USA. That meant not only legally, but culturally.
He was concerned with how he conducted himself to the American public, and that included a hyper-awareness of his style. Washington was worried that if he dressed too aristocratically, he would appear too much like the European forebears the country had left behind. On the other hand, if he dressed too humbly, other countries wouldn’t take him—or the US—seriously.
“Washington was always balancing between wanting to be very aggressively not a king—people thought the default was that America would slide into monarchy—and being lofty and important-seeming enough that the country could hold its own on the world stage,” says Joanne Freeman, a history professor at Yale University and author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic.
Washington opted for a “middle style,” she says. She writes in her book about how each day at 2pm he got out of his coach to walk in the muck of the streets, just like a normal.
This was a part of Washington’s overall view of what it meant to be presidential. In a 1790 letter to British historian Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, Washington wrote of his lifestyle:
We wish the happiness of your fire side; as we also long to enjoy that of our own at Mount Vernon. Our wishes, you know, were limited; and I think that our plans of living will now be deemed reasonable by the considerate part of our species. [My wife’s] wishes coincide with my own as to simplicity of dress, and every thing which can tend to support propriety of character without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation.
Presidents since Washington have come and gone with more down-to-earth lifestyles, and far more gaudy. But safe to say the first president’s ethos probably wouldn’t have allowed for weekly golfing getaways.
“People understood that these seemingly minor stylistic things could totally warp government into something it never intended to be,” says Freeman.
|The president‘s ken. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)|
George Washington's famous letter regarding slave selling is up for auction
In 1774, George Washington penned a letter regarding his management of a sale that included 90 slaves owned by a friend.
That document is now up for auction.
Offered by Yonkers-based Cohasco, Inc., the letter had, as of Sunday, already drawn a bid of $45,000, exceeding the $32,000 to $40,000 estimate.
The auction closes on February 22.
Bob Snyder, Cohasco's vice president, said to the Journal News, "What makes the letter historically significant is that Washington started life as a slave owner in his early teens and by about this time he began to realize that he had a conflict, an intellectual conflict. On the one hand he was agitating for American independence and freedom. On the other hand he's surrounded by slaves."
The item description in the catalog notes that Washington's significant shift in outlook largely occurred over the course of the Revolutionary War.
It is noted that after having numerous encounters with free black men, Washington became increasingly aware of the conflicts inherent in seeking liberty while allowing enslavement.