Monday, June 18th, 2012...9:30 am

Two Presidents battle for history

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Portrait of George Washington. MS Hyde 76 2.6.478This Friday, Christie’s auction house in New York is selling a blockbuster item–George Washington’s annotated copy of the Constitution. Houghton holds a book from Washington’s library that, while not so iconic a work, gives quite a bit more insight into Washington’s actions as President.

Diplomatic relations between France and the United States, so crucial to American independence, became strained after the French Revolution, and France viewed with alarm the increasing ties between the U.S. and Great Britain, which culminated in the Jay Treaty of 1794. James Monroe, appointed ambassador to France by Washington just before the signing of the Jay Treaty, strongly opposed this shift in American alliances. However, with pro-British forces led by Alexander Hamilton ascendant in Washington’s cabinet, Monroe grew increasingly alienated from administration policy, and began advancing his own agenda, leading to his dismissal from the post in 1796.

James Monroe. A view of the conduct of the executive, 1797, p. iv-v. *AC7.Un33P.Zz1m

Stung by the slight and frustrated with the direction of U.S. foreign relations, Monroe published a scathing critique of Washington and his administration the following year entitled A View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States. Unsurprisingly, Washington swiftly obtained a copy and read it with interest, responding extensively in the margins. The tone of Washington’s response is obvious from Monroe’s very first sentence. Monroe writes “In the month of May, 1794, I was invited by the President of the United States, through the Secretary of State, to accept the office of minister plenipotentiary to the French Republic.” Washington ripostes “After several attempts had failed to obtain a more eligible character.”

James Monroe. A view of the conduct of the executive, 1797, p. xliv-xlv. *AC7.Un33P.Zz1m

Due to the fragility of the paper and the corrosive ink Washington used to write his notes, this volume is restricted from use. Fortunately, Washington’s notes were transcribed, in a late 19th century edition of his works that is freely accessible online. The book has a distinguished provenance even after leaving Washington’s hands. It was given by Washington’s nephew Bushrod to his fellow Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. Story, who served on the court while simultaneously teaching at Harvard Law School, gave the book to Harvard.

Joseph Story inscription. *AC7.Un33P.Zz1m

[This post was contributed by John Overholt, Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books & Manuscripts.]