Tag Archives: George Washington

Federal Hall, Where Washington Became President

NYC-Federal Hall (2014-07-24 131)Also last Friday, Caroline and I wandered over to Federal Hall, which is the site where George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States. By site, I mean that this is NOT the building. The building, the one that was City Hall and then became Federal Hall, where Washington was actually sworn in, was torn down in 1812.

Basically, you have a really cool-looking building housing a museum to several things: Washington and the embryonic federal government; the Peter Zenger trial; and the building as a customs house and sub-treasury. Of course my interest was on Washington and Zenger.

The Bill of Rights was also written in Federal Hall. All the branches of government met in this building until the capital was moved to Philadelphia in 1790.

The Peter Zenger trial is probably one of the most interesting–and relevant–court cases in American history. It deals with freedom of the press.

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Waistcoat buttons belonging to Washington

Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who was a printer and publisher. He published the New-York Daily Journal, a newspaper which was critical of the policies of then-governor William Crosby. Zenger was so successful that Crosby had him arrested in 1734 on a charge of seditious libel. He was held in the City Hall jail for eight months before his trial.

Lawyer Andrew Hamilton (no relation to Alexander) rode up from Philadelphia to defend Zenger. Zenger’s wife continued to turn out the Daily Journal–and successfully reminded New Yorkers that her husband was still in prison. The royal judges were hostile to Hamilton, so he presented his case to the jury. Basically, Hamilton argued that if something were true, it could not be libelous. The royal judges urged finding Zenger guilty. The jury acquitted Zenger, and he was set free.

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Martha Washington’s mourning ring, worn after George’s death

One of those judges was Frederick Philipse, the great-grandson of Frederick Philipse and Margaret Hardenbroeck, two people who built a vast trading empire and the vast land holdings above Manhattan that became known as Philipsburg Manor. Popular opinion criticized the judges. This was a wake-up call for the Philipses, but they did not heed the warning.

Federal Hall was pretty busy, but the exhibits weren’t packed, and most people were scattered all over the building. It really is a lovely, marble building, with a grand entrance hall. I could see the Greco-Roman decorations here and there. As I commented to Caroline, I could comfortably live in such a building–not that it’s ever going to happen.

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George Washington’s Presidential Library

The entry sign across the street from the Mount Vernon complex

The entry sign across the street from the Mount Vernon complex

Mary and I arrived a bit early, and after parking in the lot on the opposite side of Mount Vernon, we moved to the parking lot right next to the library. The library sits back from the road among trees. The landscaping is not finished as yet, and there are still some things missing in the library itself, like the signature of George Washington which will hang in the entry lobby.

Washington's library surrounded by barren ground

Washington’s library surrounded by barren ground

I knew Mark Santangelo from the Onassis Library at the Met. He had assisted me in my research before I went on sabbatical. I was surprised that Mark had left and took the job at Mount Vernon, but this was helping to finish a new library for George Washington–the only president who didn’t have a presidential library. It was Mark’s wife’s birthday, so all his in-laws were there. He gave them a tour and invited Mary and me along.

This is the main reading room from the outside. The walls have busts of Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison mounted

This is the main reading room from the outside. The walls have mounted busts of Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison

There is no photography in the library. I might have been able to get away with some pictures, but I decided not to try. Special collections houses the books that were owned by George Washington. There’s a vault for the papers of Washington, which are slowly being transferred from the University of Virginia. In the 1960s, the Ladies of Mount Vernon worked closely with UV to gather and publish Washington’s papers, which are now being digitized.

Mary and me at the reception with the library in the background

Mary and me at the reception with the library in the background

The reception was nice, but it was held outdoors in the high humidity. As a result, the cheese had started to melt. This, however, didn’t stop people from eating. A nice couple talked to Mary and me and offered to take our picture. I also took one of them and promised to send them the photo.

What a wonderful place. Finally, Washington has the library that he always wanted, even if it is 214 years after his death. (Better late than never.)

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