I know, I know, we already celebrated President’s Day last week, but today is really Washington’s birthday. (If you want to know why we don’t celebrate his birthday on his birthday, go here.)
Today we remember George Washington; we honor him and celebrate him (sort of), but we don’t love him the way the 19th century loved him and we should. Not only did he lead the Continental Army to an improbable victory over the most powerful nation on earth, but by first relinquishing his military commission and then refusing to continue his presidency past two terms, he insured that our revolution would remain true to its republican ideals. Today we enjoy the liberty and freedoms the patriots fought for, though regrettably we too often take them for granted.
In the 19th century, Washington’s birthday was celebrated with bell ringing, cannons, parades, fireworks, and grateful prayer. Countless images of him hung in public places, schools, and private homes throughout the land.
The large steel engraving by A.H.Ritchie pictured above hangs on the wall of the basement family dining room in the Seabury Tredwell home (now the Merchant’s House Museum) in New York City. It was offered for sale by mail order in 1859.
Born in 1780, Tredwell was a boy of seven when the delegates met in Philadelphia to frame the Constitution. His generation was close enough to the founding to understand in a very personal and concrete way the risks the revolutionaries took, the dangers they faced, and the part George Washington played in winning our independence and establishing our freedoms.
Several years ago I visited Mount Vernon with my family on Washington’s birthday. One would imagine that on that day his home would be overrun by tourists and school children who were on vacation. But no—as it turned out there were only three or four others touring the home with us. When we moved outdoors to the kitchen, the laundry, the stable, we were all alone. I should explain that the weather was absolutely miserable. There was no sun; it was bitterly cold and sleeting, which no doubt accounted for the lack of visitors. Yet the weather somehow enhanced the experience for me. I could really feel the presence of George and Martha Washington in that place on that cold winter day. I will never forget it.
A month from today—March 22— I will be in Philadelphia visiting Independence Hall where George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and our freedoms were codified.
I doubt if it will snow, but I hope there aren’t too many people visiting on that day.
The Merchants House Museum is open Thursday through Monday, 12 to 5 p.m. Visit the website: www.merchantshouse.org.
The Washington print has been removed for conservation but will be back soon.