George Washington items at NLS — video transcript

Transcript of the Foreign Collections team's filmed talk about George Washington items.

CT: Hello I'm Chris Taylor.

DP: And I'm Dora Petherbridge.

We're curators on the Foreign Collections team at the National Library of Scotland. We're going to continue with our look at the Library's American political history collections, but this time through the life of one of America's great, national heroes — the 'Father of the Republic' who has been represented in literature, art and history as a great paragon of virtue, of duty and integrity.

This man was George Washington who was unanimously elected first President of the United States in 1789.

While you can research George Washington in our extensive microfiche, digital and modern printed collections, today we're going to look at four older iconic items from our collections. These illustrate George Washington's career.

CT: George Washington's political success was based on his military achievements, and this we can see in the first item.

In 1756, the French Government released some propaganda to support their claims to the Ohio River Valley. Propaganda was taken from a number of different articles. One of them was the journal of Major Washington. This propaganda fell into North American hands and the New York and Philadelphia printers had it translated over into English.

Here on page 83 we have a typical example of the French footnotes to this volume. And we can read: 'Major Washington takes care here not to give a faithful account but the endeavour he makes to justify himself will be seen hereafter.'

Washington was deemed to have distinguished himself during the French and Indian War. However, two decades later Washington would be appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army — but this time he would be fighting against the British, and ultimately he would have French allies.

DP: Now we come to an item which illustrates George Washington's role as Commander-in-Chief of the American side, the Continental forces.

These two volumes here are a collection of his official letters to the American congress during the war [American War of Independence]. The war broke out in 1775, but these letters weren't actually published until George Washington's second term as President in 1795.

These volumes are actually his own copy of the letters. As you can see he has signed the title page here at the top with his iconic signature. They were sent to him by the editor, John Carey, on a ship called 'Factor'. John Carey wrote to Washington explaining that he had annotated the volumes with notes about his editorial methods.

You can see in the back of the second volume here extensive notes explaining his work. John Carey was concerned that he should impress the President and wrote that he had used his best endeavours to guard against mistakes.

CT: Here we have a letter that Washington sent to Major General Smallwood who is commanding American forces at Annapolis, Maryland. In this letter sent from his headquarters in Newburgh, George Washington asks Smallwood for information about troop numbers, supplies and details of ammunition of the forces in Maryland.

'Dear Sir,

'Altho the levies of Maryland are considered as part of the Southern army and you an officer under the immediate orders of Major General Greene, it is my wish, nevertheless, to receive regular reports of the progress you make in the recruiting service and every other matter and thing relative to your command.'

DP: Now we turn from military matters to George Washington's domestic life and his retirement from office.

This letter was written from Mount Vernon, George Washington's beloved Virginia estate. It was written not long after he retired in November 1797. The recipient was General Alexander Spottswood, who Washington used as a kind of factotum. In this letter they're discussing that Washington is acquiring a new housekeeper and the main body of the letter is all about that.

What you can also see squeezed up the edge here is a postscript which mentions what Washington calls his 'Kentucky land'. This was actually a very modest portion of his land, but an area that he was more concerned with than any other. It was only 5,000 acres around Rough Creek in Kentucky and he exchanged it for one of his Arabian stud horses called Magnolio.

There was a long history of difficulty with deciding who actually owned this land and, as far as we know, the owner — the original owner — sold it twice — once to Washington and once to Spottswood. And that's why Washington is enquiring of Spottswood 'Have you checked the records?'

CT: The heroic status of George Washington inspired the pen of many great writers and poets, including Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns.

However, we're now going to hear the final verse of Lord Byron's 'Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte' which refers to George Washington:


'Where may the wearied eye repose
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
Nor despicable state?
Yes one the first the last — the best —
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeath'd the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!'

CT: We wish to thank our friends at 'The Papers of George Washington' [project] at the University of Virginia, and the music is once again from our friends the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums.


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