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From the Archives: George Washington Writes in the Margins

Summary: 
Beginning in March, George Washington’s Acts of Congress will travel the country and visit the 13 Presidential Libraries of the National Archives through a partnership with Mount Vernon, offering a rare glimpse into history that is as relevant today as it was 224 years ago.

Last month, President Obama began his second Inaugural Address by saying, “Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.” President Obama’s words resonate as the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday approaches on February 22, popularly known as Presidents’ Day.

Over two centuries ago, on April 30, 1789, George Washington delivered his first Inaugural Address knowing that he had little to guide him in the job that lay ahead but the principles stated in the Constitution. The Articles of the Constitution had been debated, discussed, and agreed upon just two summers earlier by the delegates of the Constitution Convention, and were still untested. Nevertheless, Washington was a strong supporter of the Constitution and would look to it for guidance in his unprecedented role as President.

During Washington’s first year in office, Congress ordered 600 copies of the Acts of Congress to be printed and distributed to federal and state government officials. The book compiled the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other legislation passed by the first session of Congress.

George Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress contains his own handwritten notes in the margins. The notes provide insight into his crucial role in the implementation and interpretation of the Constitution and the establishment of the new American government.

Washington rarely wrote on the pages of his books, and the presence of his distinct handwriting makes the historic volume even more remarkable. Customarily, Washington preferred to take notes on a separate sheet of paper, which he would insert into a book. But in his copy of the Acts of Congress, he not only wrote directly in the margins but also drew brackets next to the passages of particular interest to him.

Only three copies of this book are known to have survived: Washington’s copy and the copies belonging to Thomas Jefferson and John Jay. After his two terms in office, Washington brought the book home to Mount Vernon. It stayed in the Washington family until 1876 and then passed through a series of collectors.

Last year, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association secured the book at an auction, bringing it back to George Washington’s home. It is now on display at Mount Vernon in Virginia through Presidents’ Day.  Beginning in March, Washington’s Acts of Congress will travel the country and visit the 13 Presidential Libraries of the National Archives through a partnership with Mount Vernon.

In George Washington’s first Inaugural Address he referred to the new government as an “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Fifty-six Presidential inaugurations later, President Barack Obama spoke of the Constitution as an enduring framework for our government. The opportunity to see Washington’s Acts of Congress, complete with his carefully penciled notes, provides a rare glimpse into history that is as relevant today as it was 224 years ago.

The nationwide tour of the Acts of Congress is also an opportunity to reflect on the presidency and to wonder what it would feel like to take on the role of Commander in Chief. We’ve put together a gallery of inaugural moments that feature holdings from the 13 Presidential Libraries.

And while there are no photos of America’s first Presidential inauguration, we’ve included pages from George Washington’s first Inaugural Address from the holdings of the National Archives, as well as Washington’s historic copy of the Acts of Congress, courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Happy Presidents’ Day!

Learn more about the Acts of Congress at Mount Vernon and the Acts of Congress at the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives.