Kansas library to display George Washington’s copy of Constitution, Acts of Congress

Wichita EagleApril 18, 2013 

George Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the first laws passed by Congress will be on display starting next week at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

Washington’s copy of the Acts of Congress, a leather-bound journal of the first legislative session in 1789, contains the first president’s handwritten notes in the margins and bears his signature on the title page.

Washington’s notes – and he rarely wrote in his books – give an insight into the founding of the Republic and how Washington grappled to establish his role in exercising the powers he was granted by the Constitution, experts say.

“This is what the last 200-plus years were based on,” said Eisenhower Library curator William Snyder, who’s preparing for the exhibit.

The Eisenhower Library event begins April 23 and runs through May 3, with extended hours, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The library also will hold a Late Night at the Museum event running until 10 p.m. April 27.

Washington’s copy of the Acts of Congress had been held by private collectors since it was first sold at auction by Washington’s heirs in 1876. At one point, it was owned by famed newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

The book returned to the public arena last year when it was purchased for $9.8 million by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. The group, founded in 1858, administers the former Washington estate at Mount Vernon, Va., and is the oldest non-governmental national historical preservation association in the country, spokeswoman Melissa Wood said.

Abilene is the fourth stop on a national tour that will eventually put Washington’s book on display at all eight presidential libraries.

After the tour, it will go to permanent display at a $100 million presidential library scheduled to open Sept. 27 at Mount Vernon.

The first Congress ordered 600 copies of the Acts of Congress to distribute to government officials.

Washington received the book during his first year as president and took it home with him to Mount Vernon when he left office in 1797.

The cover of Washington’s copy is gold lettered with the words “President of the United States.” As was the fashion at the time, a bookplate bearing Washington’s coat of arms was pasted into the inside cover.

In the late 1700s, books were rare and expensive and Washington, who had an extensive personal library, “almost never wrote in books because he valued them so much,” Snyder said.

The notes in the Acts of Congress were precisely bracketed and lettered by Washington, who was a trained surveyor before becoming a Revolutionary War leader and eventually president, Snyder said.

For example, Washington wrote the single word “Required” alongside the section in the Constitution that says the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Washington established the precedent, which continues to this day, of delivering a State of the Union speech to Congress at approximately one-year intervals.

“He knew he was setting precedent,” Snyder said. “I kind of want to think he wanted to make sure he got it right.”

In addition to the Acts of Congress, the exhibit will include a short video introduction produced by CSPAN, and Washington artifacts that belonged to Eisenhower, who was a big admirer of the first president, Snyder said. Also on display will be a painting Eisenhower did himself that was a copy of the famous unfinished portrait of Washington by artist Gilbert Stuart, which is the image used on the $1 bill.

On April 27, the library will host two events featuring presentations by Mount Vernon Museum curator Susan Schoelwer.

The first is an afternoon tea and program titled “The Lady of the House: Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon.” Guests are encouraged to dress in period costume for the 2 p.m. event. Tickets are $25, including museum admission. Reservations are required by Friday. For information, call 877-746-4453.

Also April 27, a free presentation called “The Man Who Would Not Be King: George Washington Sets the Style of the Presidency,” will be held at 7 p.m. at the library, 200 SE Fourth St., Abilene.

Admission to the museum is $10 for ages 16-61, $9 for ages 62 and older, $5 for ages 6-15, and free for active military and ages 5 and under.

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