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A Historic Constitution
GW students get firsthand look at George Washington’s copy of founding document.
September 19, 2012
Earlier this week, 26 George Washington University undergraduate students had the opportunity to witness a piece of history at the home of the nation’s first president.
In honor of Constitution Day, GW students enrolled in the history course, Revolutionary America, took a field trip to the Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens to view George Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress.
The copy, which was acquired by Mount Vernon in June, includes President Washington’s handwritten notes in the document’s margins about the duties and powers of the U.S. presidency.
Denver Brunsman, an assistant professor of history in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences who teaches the course Revolutionary America, said he can’t imagine a better lesson about the outcomes of the American Revolution than President Washington’s personal annotations in his copy of the Constitution.
“Here was a man, who by this time was one of the most renowned figures in the Western world, subordinating himself to the rule of law, by taking notes on his specific duties and powers,” said Dr. Brunsman. “This meaningful lesson in citizenship will hopefully speak to students for years to come.”
President Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress includes his copy of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other legislation passed by the first session of Congress, which President Washington presided over. His signature and a branded name plate appear inside of his custom-bound copy. After retiring from the presidency in March 1797, President Washington brought the book home to Mount Vernon.
Since leaving the hands of the Washington family in 1876, the book has been preserved by several private collectors until it was auctioned off at Christie’s in New York City in June. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the oldest national historic preservation organization in the U.S., which owns and maintains Mount Vernon, won the auction with a bid of $8.7 million.
President Washington’s annotated copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are featured in a special exhibit at Mount Vernon until the estate opens the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, which will function as President Washington’s presidential library, next fall.
For Gabriella Angeloni, a senior majoring in history in the Columbian College, seeing Washington’s copy of the Acts of Congress allowed her to better relate to what she’s studying in the classroom.
“I completely believe that to truly understand the past, you need to be able to connect with it in a way,” said Ms. Angeloni. “Mount Vernon visitors can see with their own eyes Washington’s home, his desk, his presidential chair and then see his Constitution. In that way, history and President Washington’s memory aren’t dead. His legacy is very much alive.”
The law establishing Constitution Day in honor of the day the Constitution was signed in 1787 was passed in 2004. It mandates that all publicly funded educational institutions provide educational programming on the history of the American Constitution on Sept. 17. Since 2005, GW has hosted lectures, educational festivals and public readings to celebrate Constitution Day. The university has also offered free pocket-size copies of the Constitution to the university community.
Dr. Brunsman, an expert on the politics and social history of the American Revolution, said taking his class on a field trip to Mount Vernon renewed his appreciation for the Washington area serving as a historical laboratory.
“A trip like this has the power to stimulate curiosity and learning not just for a semester but for a lifetime,” he said. “There are very few universities that have such riches in their backyards. We are very fortunate.”