ATLANTA, June 7, 2013 – Reading the words on the page, it is remarkable to think George Washington’s eyes perused this very page more than two centuries ago as he sought to define the office of President.
He had no predecessor to look to as a guide, just the words. So, as Washington studied the Constitution to determine what exactly his duties as the nation’s first president would be, he wrote three words in the margin next to Article Two of the Constitution: “President,” “Powers” and “Required.”
“You really start to get a sense of his thought process,’’ said Sylvia Naguib, curator of the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum. “He’s coming to grips with: ‘what does this role require of me?’
“This was uncharted territory. We don’t think of him in those terms. We think of him as … a great leader of our county, a great military leader. We don’t think about (how) this has never been done. He did not want to be the king. So, how then do you lead?”
Today, the remarkably well-preserved 224-year-old book containing Washington’s personal copies of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and legislation passed by the first session of Congress is touring presidential libraries as it winds its way to the first president’s home in Virginia. The 106-page book – titled “Acts of Congress” – includes copies of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other laws passed by the first session of Congress.
The book, emblazoned with Washington’s bookplate, will be on display at the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum in Atlanta until June 24.
“It’s not often you get face-to-face with a book owned by George Washington – with his notes,” Naguib said.
Francis Childs and John Swaine printed the book, which Washington acquired at the end of the Congressional session on Sept. 29, 1789. Washington brought it home with him after he left the White House in 1797, and it remained in the hands of the Washington family, even after they sold his Mount Vernon, Virginia, estate in 1859.
The book was eventually sold to a collector and passed through the hands of various owners before the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased it for $9.8 million on June 22, 2012. The amount is said to be a record for an American historical document.
“To me, this is the invention of modern government. People tweak it as they go along, but what were the models they had?” said Jay Hakes, director of the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum. “The model of the king? That really wasn’t relevant. The British prime minister may be a little bit more relevant, but still quite different. The prime minister is part of the legislature; here, the president is apart from the legislature. So, this was a whole new approach, and this document capsulizes that invention.”
Following its tour, the “Acts of Congress” will be permanently housed at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is currently constructing the Smith library on Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon.
“It’s a chance for people to see something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see without a trip to Washington,” Hakes said.
“Acts of Congress” Calendar of Displays
– William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, June 30-July 12
– George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, July 14-27
– Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, July 30-Aug. 11
– Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, Aug. 13-23
– George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, Aug. 26-Sept. 9
– Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence Missouri, Sept. 12-21