This morning a friend and I ventured to the end of the 1 Train on a gorgeous summer day to visit the Van Cortlandt House Museum, the oldest remaining house in New York City. The structure dates to 1748. It was more coincidence than anything else–we did not realize it when we booked out tickets online earlier in the week–but in a piece of good fortune we happened to be there on the 240th anniversary of the Washington-Rochambeau Grand Reconnaissance. The two generals had met on the premises on July 23, 1781 on the third of three days of reconnoitering British strengths in and around New York City. Ultimately they of course decided against an offensive against the Redcoats headquartered in Manhattan and instead went south to face Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was great to see people out using the park, and also striking up conversations with fellow museum visitors and knowledgeable museum staff. I took the photo you see here of one of the gardens from the second floor. Summer 2021 is on. Go get some.
With the days warming, the world reopening incrementally, and a semi-normal summer potentially ahead I have been thinking a lot recently of hopefully returning to Federal Hall sometime in the near future. This has never been truer than today: the anniversary of George Washington’s first inaugural. We will see what happens. I have so missed that interaction with the public.
Above was the scene on Wall Street in 1789 and below an incredible image of President Benjamin Harrison’s entourage 100 years later.
Here are a few more images from my presentation this past Monday at Federal Hall on Presidents Day. Here we see an announcement for a Washington Birthday Democratic fundraiser held in Fort Worth, Texas on February 23, 1942. This was less than two months after Pearl Harbor in those tense days when the United States was getting up to speed in its war effort. The U.S. had been the “arsenal of democracy,” manufacturing tanks, bullets, jeeps, and whatnot for the Allies long prior to Pearl Harbor. Now American fighting men themselves would join the fray. As we see from the announcement the dinner was held on February 23, not Washington’s actually birthday, because the 22nd fell on a Sunday.
Roosevelt himself did not attend the dinner, though as we see the Texas Democratic leadership was not hesitant to use his likeness, and on equal footing with President Washington no less. One must remember that Texas in this era was part of the Solid South, comprised, like the rest of the region, of Dixiecrats who since the Civil War eighty years previously had stood against the Party of Lincoln. In the 1930s these leaders, and those who voted for them, were part of the fragile New Deal coalition supporting FDR in cooperation with the Democratic machines of the northern cities. That coalition would hold another three decades until fracturing in the chaos of the Vietnam War and bitterness of the Civil Rights Movement. Roosevelt’s vice-president in his first two terms had been John Nance Garner, a Texan and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The tension and unease in their relationship were representative of the strains within the New Deal coalition itself.
Garner was gone by 1942 and now Roosevelt was facing the war in his unprecedented third term. What we see here is the snippet of an article from the February 23, 1942 New York Times describing the mood on Washington’s birthday in those weeks just after Pearl Harbor. The first public observation of George Washington’s birthday had been at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Now America was facing a “new Valley Forge.” Attendees at the Fort Worth soiree did not meet Franklin Roosevelt, but they did hear him. That night he gave one of his fireside chats over the radio outlining the progress and stakes of the war, and the lessons to be learned from the experience and difficulties of Washington and the men of his Continental Army all those years earlier.
I am having my coffee before jumping in the shower and heading to Federal Hall in a short bit. Here is an image I intend to share today when discussing the history and evolution of George Washington’s Birthday. It is the original USS Wyandotte. Built in 1853 and christened the USS Western Port, the steamer saw action in South America and served in the Caribbean suppressing the slave trade prior to the Civil War. The image we see here depicts the Wyandotte in Pensacola Bay firing a salute to George Washington on February 22, 1861. This very same day President-elect Lincoln was in Philadelphia at Independence Hall marking Washington’s Birthday and raising a flag with an additional star on it in tribute to Kansas becoming a new state. He was on the train journey that was taking him from Illinois to Washington for his March 4 inaugural. It was an anxious time. Earlier this very month Jefferson Davis had been named Provisional President of the Confederacy and had spoken in Montgomery, Alabama on February 18 laying out the cause for secession.
(image/Library of Congress)
I spent a portion of this morning putting the final touches on an interpretive talk I’ll be giving tomorrow at Federal Hall. The talk is about the history and evolution of George Washington’s Birthday, which historically, with the Fourth of July, has served as a key part of America’s civic religion. There is a very human need for a usable past. On the federal level there is technically no such thing as President’s Day; the three-day weekend in which we are now in the middle is in commemoration of George Washington.
It will be good to be back at Federal Hall, where I have not been since Labor Day Weekend when it was last open on weekends. Later today I will go over my notes and outlines in preparation. The rotunda is closed for renovation but there will still a lot going on tomorrow if one is looking for something to do. That includes the talk by historian Lawrence Cappello. Come and get your history on.
On Christmas Eve a few weeks back I noted that on that date in 1784 the Congress of the Confederation was packing up its temporary home in Trenton, New Jersey and moving to more permanent, or at least semi-permanent, digs in Manhattan. Specifically Congress was moving into New York City Hall on Wall Street, which it did on January 11, 1785. The image above, as the caption notes, is from prior to the Revolution. The image is more representative of the structure as it would have been in 1785, a few years before Pierre L’Enfant renovated the building in preparation for its transformation into Federal Hall.
There is a tendency to think that not much happened at City/Federal Hall during the Confederation Period, presumably due to the weakness of the Articles of Confederation themselves. It was during this time, two years later in 1787, that the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia. Still, many significant things happened during the Confederation Congress’s years in the building we see here. Among other things, congressmen passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, put down Shays’s Rebellion, and passed the consequential Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that made possible the eventual ratification into statehood of numerous territories. After New York became the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution in late July 1788 Congress soon thereafter moved into the Walter Livingston House in order for L’Enfant to begin his work converting the building in time for the Federal Congress to convene on the site in March 1789 and for George Washington’s inaugural that April.
Here is something one does not see every day. It is a circa 1790s medal of The Society of the Cincinnati. The Cincinnati was an organization founded by American officers of the Revolutionary War in the 1780s just as the conflict was winding down. The first owner of this would thus himself have fought in the war. The “original” Cincinnati, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, was a Roman statesman and military leader who gave up power so as not to become a martial dictator. It was in this same spirit that George Washington resigned his own commission in December 1783.
I took this image yesterday at the Yale Art Gallery. Francis Patrick Garvan and his wife Mabel gave the medal and 10,000 other objects from the Colonial and Early American periods to Yale in 1930 in celebration of their twentieth wedding anniversary. It was the Garvan’s hope that these items be seen by as many people as possible, both via display in the Yale University Art Gallery itself and through loan to such institutions as Mount Vernon and elsewhere so that the items might, in the Garvan’s own words according to a 1938 Yale arts bulletin I discovered in JSTOR, “become a moving part in a great panorama of American Arts and Crafts.”
One of the most rewarding things about volunteering with the Park Service, in addition to collaborating alongside the amazing rangers who work there, is meeting the public. Everyone visits a site bringing their own expectations to what they hope to get out of it. For some that means using the bathroom and leaving without saying a word, which is fine. Others however visit on some sort of mission or purpose. We had a few of these yesterday at Federal Hall. Here are two:
Two fellows came in from rural Pennsylvania in mid-afternoon. I showed them around and then got into a longer conversation with one of them. He told me had never thought much about history until earlier this year, when his sister discovered a trove of letters written by an ancestor who had served in New Jersey regiment during the Civil War. One thing led to another and after some digging he discovered that his family roots date back in the New World to the 1640s. This knowledge in turn led him to studying not just the Civil War but the Early American period. Thus he and his friend were making the rounds of various historic sites. They were on their way to Fraunces Tavern after Federal Hall.
He told me his son lives in Brooklyn and therefore he comes to the city frequently. So I quickly jotted the names of further historic sites in various boroughs he might try to see when time permits. I will never know if he follows through. Hopefully he will.
Later a man came in with his son and we too got into a conversation. As it turned out for decades, going back to the 1980s, he was a White House correspondent for a major newspaper syndicate. We got to talking about the evolution of the newspaper industry, which in turn led to a discussion of covering various historical events. I mentioned George H.W. Bush having been at Federal Hall in April 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Washington’s First Inaugural. The man mentioned that the event had been part of a larger project that took place over that year starting in January called “From George to George.” The retired journalist had an extraordinary amount of institutional memory.
Stories like the above are just two examples of the things one only gets from being at the place itself. People, at least some of them, come in reflective and eager to share what led them to come and experience the thing for themselves.