J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

“And extraordinary indeed it was!”

The Houghton Library at Harvard has devoted a blog posting to a notable item among its rare books: George Washington’s copy of A View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, published by James Monroe in 1797.

Monroe had been the U.S. of A.’s minister in Paris in the mid-1790s. Meanwhile, John Jay was in London negotiating a treaty that moved the country closer to Great Britain. Monroe disliked that policy, resigned, and wrote this book criticizing not only the treaty but “the Executive” who had brought it about—who was, of course, President Washington.

What’s most remarkable about this copy of the book is that Washington wrote notes in his copy criticizing the young diplomat back. As the library describes:

The tone of Washington’s response is obvious from Monroe’s very first sentence. Monroe writes “In the month of May, 1794, I was invited by the President of the United States, through the Secretary of State [Edmund Randolph], to accept the office of minister plenipotentiary to the French Republic.” Washington ripostes “After several attempts had failed to obtain a more eligible character.” . . .

Due to the fragility of the paper and the corrosive ink Washington used to write his notes, this volume is restricted from use. Fortunately, Washington’s notes were transcribed, in a late 19th century edition of his works that is freely accessible online.
Many of Washington’s comments take the form of questions, a polite way of disagreeing. Every so often he cites letters of particular dates. But sometimes he responds directly. “Such was my conduct upon the above occasion, and such the motives of it,” Monroe writes, and his old boss adds, “And extraordinary indeed it was!”

TOMORROW: More news of Washington’s books.

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