Archive for Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rare Washington papers on display in Abilene

April 24, 2013


Encased in glass with the light and humidity closely controlled, a rare piece of printed United States history is on display at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum.

President George Washington’s personal, signed copy of the Acts of Congress, with his handwritten notes, is available for public viewing through May 3.

“This book from 1789 is of the first session of Congress as we know it today,” said William Snyder, the Eisenhower museum curator.

“This is pretty meaningful, important history,” he said.

Colonists declared their independence, won it in the Revolutionary War and then set out to mold a country in the United States’ first Congress.

The book, which is less than a half-inch thick, includes the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The book’s stop in Abilene is its fourth in a tour of the 13 presidential museums and libraries. The tour ends Sept. 21 at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo.

Beginning this fall, the book’s permanent home will be at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, Va.

The museum in south Abilene will be open longer hours — 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. — through May 3 and until 10 p.m. April 27. To learn more, go online to

At least two school groups viewed the exhibit Monday, along with several citizens who were just passing through.

The museum “markets” to students.

“Kids are part of our constituency,” said Karl Weissenbach, director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

Washington was given seven copies of the Acts of Congress, but the one on display is the only one he signed and put his nameplate in, and includes his handwritten notes, Snyder said, with penciled in brackets referring to certain passages.

“George Washington almost never wrote in his books,” Snyder said Monday, during a guided tour of the exhibit for media. “He had quite an extensive library and would jot down notes on other pieces of paper and slip them into his books.”

Washington’s pencil markings are fading, he said, which is one reason that the environment is so closely monitored. Desiccant gel is used to maintain moisture levels.

No photography is allowed.

Each presidential library is designing its own display. The center in Abilene was able to decorate with some of its own pieces. Among them is a large portrait of Washington that was given to Eisenhower in 1956 by Gen. Francisco Franco of Spain.

“We were kind of fortunate. Eisenhower was a Washington admirer and was given gifts,” Snyder said.

The Eisenhower museum’s Washington exhibit includes four sections. The first sets the stage with some history of the “father of our country,” Weissenbach said.

The next section dispels some of the Washington myths, such as the myth of Washington’s wooden false teeth and the story of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River.

“Early biographers were trying to make Washington more interesting,” Weissenbach said.

Washington suffered from smallpox as a young man, Snyder said, and medicines used to treat the disease caused him dental problems throughout his adult life. He began losing teeth by age 22.

While Washington never had wooden teeth, Snyder said, some were “carved from ivory.”

And there were no silver dollars during Washington’s time.

Banners show a bit of what it was like when the country won its independence and during Washington’s presidency. There were philosophical clashes between Federalists in Boston and slave holders in the South, Weissenbach said, and there were more threats of war.

“We took the exhibit to another level, trying to educate you along the way,” he said.

A video chronicles how the book has passed through the ages. Washington’s family sold it at auction in Philadelphia in 1876, and it was sold three more times before the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association bought it at auction in New York City last June for $8.7 million.

Expect much more information about the founding fathers to surface, Weissenbach said, thanks to the efforts of historians.

Times have changed a lot since the country was born. “There were not as many reporters and the roads were dusty. It was definitely a different environment,” Weissenbach said. “It’s amazing what they’ll find. There are constantly new items coming out. We haven’t learned all there is to know about George Washington.”


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