One of the most fun projects I have contributed to since coming to work at Mount Vernon as the in-house Washington Papers editor was the creation of The Situation Room Experience, an interactive game that requires users to assume the role of historical actors during George Washington’s presidency. A few presidential library sites have developed Situation Room scenarios as a tool to educate visitors and enliven their learning experiences. Mount Vernon’s version focuses on the neutrality crisis of 1792-93, often called The Citizen Genet Affair, after the French minister, Edmond Charles Genet, who tried to pressure the U.S. into supporting revolutionary France’s wars against Great Britain and the monarchies of Europe.
According to his presidential household accounts, on April 5th, 1794, George Washington “pd. for 8 tickets to see automatons by order.” These automatons were mechanical creations made of wood or plaster, operated by “hidden springs and gears.” With the ability to perform many different complex actions, such as writing, dancing, and imitating human movements, automatons created a source of lively entertainment for spectators.
Bringing order to sources is the essence of bibliography, and it cannot be stressed enough how much editors appreciate any person who achieves that end. In the world of documentary scholarship on George Washington, a genuine star in this regard is Appleton Prentiss Clark Griffin (1852‒1926), who compiled A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum (Cambridge, Mass., 1897).
After several months spent manning and equipping his new unit, Maj. Henry Lee, Jr., finally got his partisan corps into the field in August 1778. Gen. George Washington had assigned Lee to operate with Brig. Gen. Charles Scott’s light infantry brigade, the element of the army that had advanced closest to the British lines in the lower part of Westchester County. For the remainder of August and most of the next month, Lee and his corps carried out their patrol and intelligence-gathering duties, but in late September, that would change.
George Washington’s understanding of what we now often call “gun rights” would not seem to readily square with the views of today’s contending factions, each of whom commonly invoke Washington for support. He does not appear to have thought that every citizen possessed an unlimited individual right to bear arms, for criminals and traitors were to be forcibly disarmed. Washington, however, believed that all citizens faithfully engaged in state militia or federal army service ought to be granted combat-worthy firearms from the proper governmental authority. He also believed that citizens should be skilled with hunting rifles at least before commencing militia or army service.
Since George Washington made lists of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon for his own benefit (and not for the benefit of future historians), he only recorded the information he needed to know. Still, historians can glean valuable information from these materials. With some effort, researchers can use a detached and dehumanizing resource such as a slave list to tell a human story. I recently learned this lesson while annotating a legal document (likely created in 1802) that divided Martha Washington’s slaves amongst her four heirs. I wanted to identify the people named in that list by more than just a first name and price, so I read through George Washington’s slave lists to learn as much as I could.
Unlike George Washington, Francis Hopkinson seems to have craved attention, enjoying both the public eye—and ear. From his days as a student at the College of Philadelphia through an impressive career as lawyer, statesman, judge, scientist, and inventor, Hopkinson often spoke publicly and wrote extensively. What few realize about him, though, is that he was intimately involved in shaping Americans’ opinions before, during and after the Revolutionary War—through song lyrics.
One of the most significant periods of George Washington’s public career was his service as president of the Constitutional Convention. It is also one of the least well-known. This is probably because Washington said little during the convention debates—records indicate that he only spoke twice—and he did not publicly participate in the ratification process. Nevertheless, he did preside over the convention, and impeachment was a topic the delegates debated.
The American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1816, supported the mission of removing free African Americans and freed enslaved individuals from the United States. The concept of colonizing a portion of the national population was founded upon the belief that America could not exist as a multi-racial society. Between 1822, when the colony of Liberia was founded on the western coast of Africa, and Liberia’s independence in 1847, the ACS facilitated the emigration of more than 11,000 black Americans to Africa. The federal government gave no funds to the venture.
The circus is not what usually comes to mind when thinking about George Washington, though it seems Washington was intrigued by it. According to his Presidential Household Financial Accounts, Washington “[paid] for 8 tickets for the Circus” on April 24, 1793. This was the first circus to take place in the United States, and it had debuted only a few weeks prior.