Thursday, January 24, 2013

Presidential Timbre

George Washington took the oath of office on a balcony
of Federal Hall in New York City.
Having just closed the nation's 57th inauguration, I think its safe to say that presidents are on people's minds -- for better or worse.

Many of the traditions observed Monday by President Obama were set by our first president when he took the first oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City, the nation's temporary capital.

But don't take my word for it, not when you will have the opportunity to have the word of an expert.

Gordon S. Wood
I have said many times that one of the things I like the most about having The Hill School in Pottstown is the opportunity it provides to meet many of the nation's leaders who are both alumni and featured speakers.

For example, I've interviewed former Secretary of State and Hill alum James Baker twice and it was a genuine "local" story each time.

The latest opportunity comes next month and the public is invited.

History geeks among the invited public (yes, you in the back; you and me both) will understand then when I tell you why I am excited about this coming President's Day on Monday, Feb. 18.

Let's face it, most of us think of President's Day as a day of stupid car commercials with bad actors dressed up as Lincoln and Washington.

This is all well and good for the cause of commerce, but it is hardly the respectful, thoughtful commemoration  we all might hope the day would be.

But we'll have that opportunity to make it exactly that Feb. 18 when presidential scholar Gordon S. Wood, who is at The Hill as this year's David R. Dougherty Senior Teaching Fellowship of American History speaker.

His talk begins at 7:15 p.m. and will be held in the Alumni Chapel on The Hill campus.
An expert on the Revolutionary period, Wood
understands the importance of the role
Washington played in the nation's earliest
and, some might say, most dangerous days.

Dr. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University.

But while that indicates his qualifications, he is so much more than that. To me, at least, the best recommendation to attend his talk is that he is one of the best modern authors books on American history that I have ever read.

Of course I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Certainly 1993's Pulitzer Prize committee felt that way when they awarded him the prize for "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," a book of his which I have yet to read but which my sister (only recently come to history) recommends strongly.

Born in Concord, Mass. in 1933, Wood received his bachelor's from Tufts, his Masters and his Doctorate from Harvard.

According to his curriculum vitae, Wood has taught at Harvard, William and Mary, University of Michigan, Northwestern and Brown universities.
"The Radicalism of the American

Revolution" won the Pulitzer Prize
in 1993.

According to his faculty page at Brown, where he has taught since 1969, Wood is: "the author of the 'Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787' (1969), which won the Bancroft Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize in 1970, and 'The Radicalism of the American Revolution' (1992), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize in 1993. 'The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin' (2004) was awarded the Julia Ward Howe Prize by the Boston Authors Club in 2005. 'Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different' was published in 2006. 'The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History' was published in 2008. His book in the Oxford History of the United States, 'Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815'" was published in October 2009.

Wood reviews in the New York Review of Books and The New Republic. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

So, in other words, no slouch when it comes to the founders all sides of current political debate love to cite.

One of the things the recent spate of scholarship on the founders has helped me to understand is the importance of Washington to the founding of the nation.

"Revolutionary Characters" was published 
in 2006.
While this may sound like a statement of the obvious, it is not always immediately obvious to a reader.

Unlike the other founders, Washington was not college-educated; he was not a "man of letters" as Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were. Therefore, he has left less of his own thoughts behind for us to get to know him.

One quote attributed to Franklin in reference to Washington being chosen to preside over a meeting has Ben saying: "We always choose him to lead us because he was always the tallest man in the room."

In some ways, that epitomizes Washington's role in our founding. He may not have been well-educated, but while the other founders believed in the power of reason and rhetoric, Washington better understood the power of symbolism -- and most of all when it came to him.

It is because of this understanding that he was able to be "the tallest man in the room" and be the one person all the squabbling factions of the Revolution could agree upon as the first president.

"Empire of Liberty" was published in 2009

and currently sits on my nightstand.
And as such, he understood that everything he did would set a precedent, not only in what he said at the Oath of Office, but in his foreign policy and how he dealt with such insurrections as Pennsylvania's own "Whiskey Rebellion."

I look forward to hearing Dr. Wood's thoughts on the man.

I am currently reading "Empire of Liberty," which I recommend to all people who, like me, wonder "what happens AFTER you win the war?" 

Or, to put it another way, the final words of Robert Redford's character in "The Candidate" who had just successfully won a seat on the U.S. Senate -- "Now what?"

I can also recommend "Revolutionary Characters," which, like the recently read  "Lincoln at Gettysburg" by Garry Wills, helps the modern reader understand the context of the times and attitudes in which the people we now revere did the great things we all know they did.

Hope to see you in the chapel.

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