The Father of Our Country

… was born 283 years ago today on February 11, 1731*.

Gilbert Stuart, The Athenaeum, 1796 Click for larger version.
Gilbert Stuart, The Athenaeum, 1796
Click for larger version.

To describe George Washington as enigmatic may strike some as strange, for every young student knows about him (or did when students could be counted on to know anything). He was born into a minor family in Virginia’s plantation gentry, worked as a surveyor in the West as a young man, was a hero of sorts during the French and Indian War, became an extremely wealthy planter (after marrying a rich widow), served as commander in chief of the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War (including the terrible winter at Valley Forge), defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown, suppressed a threatened mutiny by his officers at Newburgh, N.Y., then astonished the world and won its applause by laying down his sword in 1783. Called out of retirement, he presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, reluctantly accepted the presidency in 1789 and served for two terms, thus assuring the success of the American experiment in self-government.

Washington was, after all, a magnificent physical specimen. He towered several inches over six feet, had broad shoulders and slender hips (in a nation consisting mainly of short, fat people), was powerful and a superb athlete. He carried himself with a dignity that astonished; when she first laid eyes on him Abigail Adams, a veteran of receptions at royal courts and a difficult woman to impress, gushed like a schoolgirl. On horseback he rode with a presence that declared him the commander in chief even if he had not been in uniform.

Other characteristics smack of the supernatural. He was impervious to gunfire. Repeatedly, he was caught in cross-fires and yet no bullet ever touched him. In a 1754 letter to his brother he wrote that “I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the Sound.” During the Revolutionary War he had horses shot from under him but it seemed that no bullet dared strike him personally. Moreover, when the Continental Army was ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, Washington, having had the disease as a youngster, proved to be as immune to it as he was to bullets.

Forrest McDonald in his review of Joseph J. Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington.

Ron Chernow was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Washington: A Life.

__________

* By the Julian calendar, George Washington was born on February 11, 1731. Twenty years later Britain and her colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar, the calendar we use today. The change added 11 days and designated January rather than March as the beginning of the year. As a result, Washington’s birthday became February 22, 1732.

One of His 1,093 Patents

137 years ago today Thomas Edison received a patent (U.S. Patent 200,521) for the phonograph and ultimately music changed forever.

The phonograph was developed as a result of Thomas Edison’s work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone. In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape…This development led Edison to speculate that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern. Edison gave a sketch of the machine to his mechanic, John Kreusi, to build, which Kreusi supposedly did within 30 hours. Edison immediately tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, “Mary had a little lamb.” To his amazement, the machine played his words back to him. …

The invention was highly original. The only other recorded evidence of such an invention was in a paper by French scientist Charles Cros, written on April 18, 1877. There were some differences, however, between the two men’s ideas, and Cros’s work remained only a theory, since he did not produce a working model of it.

Source: Library of Congress

Edison with second phonograph, photographed by Mathew Brady in Washington, April 1878.
Edison with second phonograph, photographed by Mathew Brady in Washington, April 1878.

President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 151 Years Ago Today

Nicolay Copy

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

‘The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.’

George Washington engaged in his first military action 260 years ago today, May 28, 1754.

Washington arrived at the Great Meadows, as the Fort Necessity area was than called, on May 24. Although the meadow was nearly all marsh, he believed it “a charming field for an encounter” and ordered his men to set up an encampment. Three days later, after hearing that a group of French soldiers had been spotted about seven miles away on Chestnut Ridge, Washington and 40 men set out to find them. At dawn on May 28, the Virginians reached the camp of Tanacharison, a friendly Seneca chief known as the Half King. His scouts then led them to the ravine about two miles to the north where the French were encamped.

The French, commanded by Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, were taken by surprise. Ten were killed, including Jumonville, one was wounded, and 21 were made prisoner. One man escaped to carry the news back to Fort Duquesne. Washington’s command suffered only one man killed and two wounded.

Fearing “we might be attacked by considerable forces,” Washington undertook to fortify his position at the Great Meadows. During the last two days of May and the first three days of June, he built a circular palisaded fort, which he called Fort Necessity.

Source: Fort Necessity National Battlefield

The action at what came to be called Jumonville Glen sparked the world war that we know as the French and Indian War.

For his part, Washington loved it: “I fortunately escaped without any wound, for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy’s fire, and it was the part where the man was killed, and the rest wounded. I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me there is something charming in the sound.”

The title to the post is a quotation from Horace Walpole.

May 8th Ought to Be a National Holiday

Harry Truman was born on May 8th, 130 years ago today (1884).

The Truman Library has the Truman diary online. The diary, which was just discovered in 2003, was kept intermittently by the President during 1947. It is fascinating reading.

The entry for January 3:

Byrnes & I discussed General Marshall’s last letter and decided to ask him to come home. Byrnes is going to quit on the tenth and I shall make Marshall Sec[retary] of State. Some of the crackpots will in all probability yell their heads off-but let ‘em yell! Marshall is the ablest man in the whole gallery.

Mrs. Roosevelt came in at 3 P.M. to assure me that Jimmy & Elliott had nothing against me and intended no disparagement of me in their recent non-edited remarks. Said she was for me. Said she didn’t like Byrnes and was sure he was not reporting Elliott correctly. Said Byrnes was always for Byrnes and no one else. I wonder! He’s been loyal to me[.] In the Senate he gave me my first small appropriation, which started the Special Committee to investigate the National Defense Program on its way. He’d probably have done me a favor if he’d refused to give it.

Maybe there was something on both sides in this situation. It is a pity a great man has to have progeny! Look at Churchill’s. Remember Lincoln’s and Grant’s. Even in collateral branches Washington’s wasn’t so good-and Teddy Roosevelt’s are terrible.

The entry for January 8:

The Senate took Marshall lock, stock and barrell [sic]. Confirmed him by unanimous consent and did not even refer his nomination to a committee. A grand start for him.

I am very happy over that proceedure [sic]. Marshall is, I think[,] the greatest man of the World War II. He managed to get along with Roosevelt, the Congress, Churchill, the Navy and the Joint Chief of Staff and he made a grand record in China.

When I asked him to take the extrovert Pat Hurley[‘]s place as my special envoy to China, he merely said “Yes, Mr. President I’ll go.” No argument only patriotic action. And if any man was entitled to balk and ask for a rest, he was. We’ll have a real State Dep[artmen]t now.

The entry for July 6:

Drove an open car from Charlottesville to Washington-starting at 9:15 Washington time.

Had a V[irgini]a Highway Policeman in a car ahead making the pace at exactly the speed allowed by V[irgini]a law. He forced all the trucks to one side as I always wanted to do. Made the drive in 3 hours. Had Sec[retary] of Treas[ury] Snyder, Adm[iral] Leahy, and Doctor Brig[adier] Gen[eral] Graham as passengers. All said they enjoyed the ride and felt they needed no extra accident coverage!

David McCullough’s Truman is superb.

U.S. Grant

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on this date in 1822.

In 1839, his Ohio congressman nominated him for the U.S. Military Academy, but mistakenly as Ulysses S. Grant. The cadet simply adopted the name. Because his new initials were U.S., the same as those of Uncle Sam, Grant was nicknamed Sam in the Army.

The name U.S. Grant took on a whole new meaning in 1862 however.

HEADQUARTERS ARMY IN THE FIELD
Camp near Fort Donelson
February 16, 1862.
 
General S. B. BUCKNER,
Confederate Army.

     SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U.S. GRANT,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.
 

From then the U.S. in U.S. Grant stood for Unconditional Surrender.