Washington’s presidency set standard for future US leaders

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It’s inauguration day in the United States, and while there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the man who will take office today, I prefer to believe that the presidency has an ennobling effect upon those who ascend to the office.

Certainly, the aura connected with the presidency, with its corps of staff and aides providing assistance, has great potential to provide a stabilizing influence on those elevated to the Oval Office.

The position can bestow a solemnity on even the most political of beings, given the gravity and history connected to the office.

If the United States has an unusual place in the world, it’s due in part to its tradition of peaceful transition of power. Consider that even some of the world’s smallest nations, such as Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, are despotic tyrannies where leaders refuse to let loose of power.

From the start, the US has followed a protocol in which opposing parties have handed off power without incident, even when election results didn’t go the way the majority of voters had wanted.

That is due in no small part to George Washington, the US’s first president and one of the history’s most remarkable individuals.

Washington, who took office in 1789, remains the only man to receive 100 percent of the electoral votes cast under the US system.

His accomplishments were legion even before he became the first chief executive.

Against almost unfathomable odds, he led a rag-tag collection of volunteers and state militia troops to victory over the then-greatest military force on the planet, enabling the Thirteen Colonies to secure their independence from Great Britain.

He also presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and his support convinced many states to vote for ratification.

As president, Washington avoided the temptation of war. His farewell address has been cited as a primer on republican virtue and as a warning against partisanship, sectionalism and involvement in foreign entanglements.

He reluctantly began a second term in office in 1793 but afterward retired to Mount Vernon, Va.

Few men, given the opportunity to hold office for life, as he was, would be able to walk away in the manner of Washington.

Washington did it twice, first after the American Revolution and again after his second term as president.

That didn’t escape the notice of British monarch King George III. Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, George asked painter Benjamin West what Washington would do next and was told of rumors that he’d return to his farm.

The king responded by stating, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

There has been no other president like Washington and there never will be. But Washington set a standard for the office which all who follow in his steps would do well to attempt to emulate.

(George Washington being sworn in as the US’s first president in 1789 in New York City.)

Georgia town tries to keep one foot in past, one in present

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Hundreds of US towns, cites, counties, lakes, etc. bear the name Washington – most, one would think, in honor of George Washington, although it’s possible baseball vagabond Claudell Washington may have been recognized by a locale or two in recent years.

The first town to name itself for America’s Founding Father was Washington, Ga., which definitely took a leap of faith when it opted to identify itself with the then-commander in chief of patriot forces in January 1780. At that point, the colonies’ hopes for defeating the British in the American Revolution were very much touch and go, and would be for another 18 months.

One imagines that if the war had gone the other way, British and loyalist forces would not have looked kindly on those who opted to name their town for the defeated rebel leader.

Today, Washington is a bucolic community of about 4,000, with a surprising number of antebellum mansions – more than 100 – including that of Confederate Secretary of State and later General Robert Toombs; the residence of planter John Talbot – now called the Griggs Home – where Eli Whitney spent time perfecting his cotton gin; and the Slaton Home, where Sarah Porter Hillhouse, Georgia’s first female newspaper editor, lived more than 200 years ago.

At the heart of the town is the Washington’s court square, which, more accurately, is shaped like a rectangle and is surrounded by one- and two-story brick buildings.
Many date from the late 1890s, having been built after a particularly devastating fire in June 1895 that claimed five stores, an office building, a wagon-and-machine shop and a residence. In addition, the town’s Episcopal church and two other dwellings were seriously damaged.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Obviously, the conflagration wasn’t on par with the great Chicago Fire of 1871, but in a town that then claimed 2,000 residents, such a blaze could have proved debilitating to business and citizenry alike.

The town’s residents didn’t take long to rebound; several of the structures in the court square bear the date 1895.

Propelled by agriculture and its position on a key rail line, Washington continued to thrive despite the occasional setback.

A short distance from courthouse square sits the old Barrows House Hotel (above), built by Edward F. Barrows, an architect who assisted with construction of the Atlanta Penitentiary.

The Barrows Hotel opened in 1899, and was a two-story, Romanesque Revival-style, brick building that featured a square, two-and-a-half story corner tower, a parapet roof with elaborate cornice, round-arched windows and an arcaded first floor on the front facade.

The hotel sat across from the old Georgia Railroad depot and was built to accommodate “drummers,” or traveling salesmen.

But, like the town, and rural communities across the region, the hotel has fallen on hard times in recent decades.

The train depot was demolished in the 1970s and the hotel itself has been in disrepair for at least that long. Still, despite creeping foliage, scattered debris and the occasional broken window, the structure retains at least a sliver of its past grandeur.

In recent years Washington has embraced efforts to renovate many of its many older structures. Taking on a project the magnitude of the Barrows House Hotel would be no mean feat, but it would be a worthy compliment to the other stunningly restored edifices around the attractive Southern town.

(Top: Barrows House Hotel, located on Depot Street, Washington, Ga.)

Recalling an honest man, ‘the noblest work of God’

old waxhaw graveyard

A number of notable individuals are interred at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery in South Carolina’s Lancaster County, just south of the North Carolina state line.

These include Andrew Jackson Sr., the father of the seventh US president; William Richardson Davie, who led American troops in the Revolutionary War, served as governor of North Carolina and is considered the founder of the University of North Carolina; and James Witherspoon, lieutenant governor of South Carolina from 1826-28.

One individual who doesn’t garner the recognition of the above but is certainly worthy of acknowledgement is William Blair, who came from Ireland to the US in the early 1770s.

Like many of the men buried at Old Waxhaw, Blair served the American cause in the Revolution. His contributions are etched onto the horizontal slab that sits atop a “chest tomb,” a brick and mortar edifice constructed over his grave.

Blair’s epitaph contains more than 300 words, engraved in fine script that must have taken a stone carver a fair bit of time to craft.

It details the date of Blair’s birth and death, that he arrived from County Atrium at age 13 and that he was preceded in death by his wife Sarah, who rests next to him.

What’s of particular note, however, is the description of Blair’s involvement in the American Revolution, and his life afterward:

“He was a Revolutionary Patriot: – And in the humble Stations of private Soldier and Waggon master. it is believed he Contributed more essentially to the Establishment of American Independence than many whose names are proudly emblazoned on the page of History. With his Father’s waggon he assisted in transporting the baggage of the American Army for several months. – He was also in the battles of the Hanging Rock. – The Eutaw, Ratliff’s bridge, Stono – and the Fish dam ford on broad river. …”

View of William Blair's gravestone at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Click to see bigger image.

View of William Blair’s gravestone at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Click to see bigger image.

The engagements referred to are the battles of Hanging Rock, Aug. 6, 1780; Eutaw Springs, Sept. 8, 1781; Ratliff’s or Radcliff’s Bridge, March 6, 1781; Stono Ferry, June 20, 1779; and Fishdam Ford, Nov. 9, 1780.

Given that there were more battles and skirmishes fought in South Carolina than any other American colony during the Revolution, it’s almost a certainty that Blair saw action at other encounters, as well.

Just as interesting is what follows after the details of Blair’s service:

“In one of these battles (it is not recollected which) he received a slight wound: but so far from regarding it, either then or afterwards, when it was intimated to him that he might avail himself of the bounty of his Country and draw a Pension (as many of his Camp associates had done) he declared that, if the small Competence he then possessed failed him, he was both able and willing to work for his living; and if it became necessary, to fight for his Country without a penny of pay. He was in the Language of Pope, The noblest work of God – an honest man. ‘No farther seek his merits to disclose, Or draw his frailties from their dread abode; (There they alike in trembling hope repose) The bosom of his Father and his God.’”

Blair died on July 2, 1824, at age 65. He and his wife Sarah had seven children, including one son, James, who served four terms in Congress.

Today, Americans remember the likes of George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and John Paul Jones when they’re able to recall any military leaders from the Revolution War at all.

But were it not for William Blair and thousands of others like him, men who served dutifully during the conflict and then quietly went about the business of building a nation, it’s difficult to imagine that the Founding Fathers’ ambitions would have ever been realized.

(Top: View of Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Lancaster County, SC.)

Renovation set for 180-year lock keeper’s house in Washington

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Amid the many monuments and memorials found on the Washington Mall, one structure stands out for a very different reason. The Lock Keeper’s House of the long-defunct Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is a 180-year old structure that sits at the intersection of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW, approximately 1,000 feet north of the National World War II Memorial and less than 1,500 feet northeast of the Washington Monument.

Originally the eastern terminal of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the structure was erected around 1835, part of an extension of the C&O Canal. The building was constructed as the house for the canal lock keeper, who collected tolls and kept records of commerce on the waterway.

Plans are underway to restore and relocate the venerable structure, part of a $7.5 million refurbishment that will take approximately two years to complete, according to an upcoming edition of American Heritage magazine.

The two-story stone block structure will be moved back from the busy intersection as part of the restoration.

The effort is being bolstered by a $1 million donation from the American Express Foundation, which will assist  National Park Service and Trust for the National Mall plans to renovate the house. The venerable structure will be used as a gateway to the revitalized 38-acre Constitution Gardens and nearby monuments.

The C&O Canal began as George Washington’s idea to open the Potomac River as an all-water transportation route to the Ohio River Valley, according to the C&O Canal Trust.

Within the nation’s capital, the canal passed along the present line of B Street in front of house, emptying into Tiber Creek and the Potomac River.

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Grandsons of John Tyler – US president born in 1790 – still alive

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It seems rather remarkable, but two grandsons of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States and a man born less than year after George Washington was first inaugurated as president, are still alive.

Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., who turned 90 this week, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler, who turned 86 last November, continue chugging along, nearly 175 years after their grandfather assumed the nation’s highest office.

John Tyler was born in Virginia in 1790. He was elected vice president in 1841, and ascended to the Oval Office a month later when President William Henry Harrison caught pneumonia and died after making an hour-long inaugural address in cold, rainy weather.

Tyler was the first vice president to become president on the death of sitting chief executive.

Tyler’s first wife Letitia was an invalid at the time he became president and died soon thereafter. He later married Julia, who was 30 years his junior, making him the first president to be married while in office.

Tyler was rather prolific. He fathered 15 children: eight with Letitia and seven more with Julia. Five of his children by his second wife lived into the 20th century and one repeated the pattern of his father.

Tyler’s 13th child, Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935), had three children with his first wife Anne Baker Tucker Tyler and three more with his second wife Sue Ruffin Tyler, whom he wed after Anne’s death. When he wed Sue Ruffin Tyler, Lyon Tyler was 70, twice her age.

While one of the latter three children died in infancy, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. lives in Franklin, Tenn., and Harrison Ruffin Tyler, lives at Sherwood Forest Plantation, the Tyler’s historic family home in Virginia.

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Houdon’s Washington: Sublime artistry

Houdon's Washington

The most valuable piece of marble in the United States is said to rest in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va.

Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture of George Washington, completed in the early 1790s, is insured for $50 million.

Carved from Carrara marble, it depicts a life-sized Washington. Standing 6-foot-2-1/2 inches, Washington’s right hand is on a cane while his left arm rests on a fasces, on which is slung his cape and sword. At Washington’s back is a plow.

He is shown wearing his military uniform; Washington wished to be depicted in contemporary attire, rather than that of antiquity popular in Neo-classical sculpture.

Chief Justice John Marshall, a contemporary of Washington, said of Houdon’s work, “Nothing in bronze or stone could be a more perfect image than this statue of the living Washington.”

The statue is so realistic that Washington’s uniform is shown missing a button toward the bottom of his waistcoat, just as his real-life uniform appeared at the time.

“Houdon’s statue alludes to the similarities between Washington and the ancient Roman General Cincinnatus who, when Rome no longer needed him, gave up his military power and returned to the simple life of a farmer,” according to the website of Virginia General Assembly. “The artist carefully balanced the military and civilian elements of Washington’s career: his sword is by his side, and he rests his left hand on a fasces (a bundle of rods, which was a Roman symbol of power), but he carries a civilian walking cane and stands next to a plow.

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The wacky world of the early US high court

John Jay Court

John Marshall became chief justice of the United States on this date in 1801. Marshall would sit on the high court until 1835, and his opinions laid the basis for American constitutional law and made the US Supreme Court a co-equal branch of government, along with the legislative and executive branches.

But what of Marshall’s predecessors?

The best known of the three men to lead the Supreme Court before Marshall was John Jay, who, among other things, helped write the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

During Jay’s nearly six years as chief justice (1789-1795), the high court ruled on just four cases, rather remarkable considering today the court receives petitions to hear some 7,000 cases annually.

Jay resigned as chief justice in June 1795 after being elected governor of New York. President George Washington named John Rutledge of South Carolina, an original high court associate justice who had resigned in 1791 to become chief justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions, to replace Jay.

Washington’s appointment took effect immediately as the US Senate was not in session.

However, Rutledge’s time on the court proved one of the shortest in the history of the nation. He was a vocal opponent to the Jay Treaty of 1794, which resolved issues remaining from the Revolutionary War but left many Americans unhappy.

His opposition cost him support in the administration and the senate. In addition, questions about his mental stability, driven at least partly by partisanship, were making the rounds.

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