Revealing jovial side of George

Washington: A newly authenticated letter written by the first president shows he was, after all, capable of making a joke.

November 23, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

George Washington was a warrior, a statesman, a founding forefather, but one thing he wasn't -- funny.

At least that's what most historians have thought. But now a rare 1762 letter, which over two centuries found its way from Mount Vernon to Europe to California and eventually into the hands of an Anne Arundel collector, could change that perception.

Long thought to be a forgery, the letter was written by Washington to his brother-in-law Burwell Bassett on Aug. 28.

It chided Bassett for not attending church, even though Washington's own attendance was known to be quite infrequent, and blaming the biblical Noah for allowing onto his ark the pests chewing up Washington's crops.

Jovial and even sarcastic in places, the letter -- owned by William F. Chaney of Lothian, County Executive Janet S. Owens' close friend and adviser -- offers rare insight into a man so often serious that the first Congress once lamented having to read another one of his dry and always sober letters.

Christie's auction house in New York authenticated the letter this year and will put it up for auction Dec. 10.

Meanwhile, historians across the country, while bemoaning the $160,000 asking price, say it is already changing the way many view the country's first president.

"That letter was so unique, it has always caused Washington scholars to raise their eyebrows to whether it's authentic," said historian Kenneth R. Bowling of George Washington University's First Federal Congress Project and author of "The Creation of Washington D.C."

"But now that it's proven to be real, it shows he displayed a sense of humor privately that he certainly never showed publicly.

"He is so sanctified in this country, we never allowed ourselves to look at the human side of him we now know he had," Bowling said.

The letter's whereabouts for decades was largely a mystery. It disappeared for many years, only to surface mislabled in Europe several decades ago as a letter written by someone else but signed by Washington.

Mount Vernon purchased a copy of the letter from Christie's in 1951, possibly to display at Washington's historic home, but was not able to locate the original.

Five years ago, a private dealer in Beverly Hills, Calif., found the letter in England and bought it. That dealer then sold it to Chaney, a longtime collector of war and presidential memorabilia who has owned it for almost two years.

"I knew it was unusual when I saw it," Chaney said. "I have seen so many of his letters, I know his handwriting.

"He is the driest, sternest man. This is the only letter I've ever seen like this."

Chris R. Coover, the American manuscripts specialist for Christie's, said that besides matching the handwriting, the auction house experts tested the paper, ink and watermark of the letter against other letters Washington wrote at the time.

"It's one of the most interesting manuscripts we've ever handled," he said. "It's also unique in that these early letters are few and very far between."

Washington wrote more than 40,000 letters in his lifetime, many of which have been sold for $10,000 to $20,000. He wrote this one at his desk at Mount Vernon just outside the nation's capital, three years after marrying Martha Dandridge Custis and just after joining the Virginia legislature.

He writes: "I was favoured with your [letter] on a certain 25th of July when you ought to have been in Church could you but behold with what religious zeal I [get] to Church on every Lord's day, it wo[ul]d do your heart good, and fill it I hope with equal fervency."

He goes on to say that he had recently heard that his brother-in-law had taken up planting tobacco.

" at a time when our growing Property -- meaning the Tobacco -- is assailed by every villainous worm that has had an existence since the days of Noah (how unkind it was of Noah, now I have mentioned his name, to suffer such a brood of Vermin to get a berth in the Ark.)"

Historians at Mount Vernon have tried in recent years to show Washington more in this light rather that the glorified, exalted state he held even when he was alive.

The official tour through his house and gardens notes that Washington distilled 11,000 gallons of liquor a year at Mount Vernon and referred to his house as a "well-resorted tavern" after 600 overnight guests came to stay in one year after the Revolutionary War.

They point to a favorite chair with pedals that pushed a fan over his head, and his collection of books, including "How to Get Rich Quick by Farming." And they quickly dismiss the cherry tree story.

Still, the efforts are not always successful -- in part because of Washington himself, who historians say promoted his own image later in life as regal and serious.

"We have been trying lately to show him to be much more of a man like you and me rather than the myth," said Jennifer L. Saxon, on staff at Mount Vernon.

"It's hard because you were never supposed to ask before about his dentures, where he changed his clothes, his personal life, which is a shame.

"It is so much more powerful to visitors to see him as an honest person, a man, not a portrait that no one can live up to."

She said the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which runs Mount Vernon, would love to purchase the letter, but the asking price is out of its price range.

Coover expects it will likely end up in the hands of a private collector -- rather than on display -- which in the end might be what Washington would have preferred anyway.

In a 1784 letter to a close friend, he wrote, "Any memoirs of my life would rather hurt my feelings than tickle my pride whilst I lived. I had rather glide gently down the stream of life, leaving it to posterity to think and say what they please of me."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.