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George Washington on the Stamp: An Excerpt From 'A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps'

By    |   Thursday, 13 November 2014 10:12 AM

Excerpt from the book A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West

George Washington has appeared on more U.S. postage stamps than any other individual—including this one, the first issued for nationwide use, in 1847. The actual date of issue was July 1, after which 10¢ allowed you to send a letter weighing up to half an ounce anywhere in the United States. Few people would deny Washington this honor—though the depiction of him on the stamp is not exactly flattering. A number of Washington portraits share this quality. Energetic and impatient, especially when young, he hated sitting around posing to be painted, and it usually shows. He also had bad teeth, some of which had been replaced with ivory replicas, which explains the puffiness around his mouth.

The X on the stamp tells us a lot about Washington, too. It is the Roman numeral ten. Washington, an eighteenth-century landowner, would have had an education in classics. Ancient Rome was part of his culture, as were Shakespeare, the European Enlightenment, and the ways of rural Virginia. One of his greatest heroes was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a fifth-century b.c. Roman consul who retired from politics to till his fields but was summoned back to power when his country was attacked by a confederation of unfriendly tribes. Cincinnatus saw the invaders off and was offered all kinds of inducements to stay in power, but he went back to his plow.

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Washington’s life had already begun to follow this trajectory. He had fought as a British officer in the 1756–63 war, acquiring a reputation for bravery by rallying troops under fire in the disastrous retreat from Fort Duquesne in 1757. After this, he returned to his farm, or rather to his estates, which expanded considerably after his marriage to Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, in 1759. Rather than plowing, he experimented with new agricultural methods (and, of course, used slave labor, as was standard on plantations at that time).

Washington’s conversion to the cause of independence was slow but thorough. He had found the British regular officers alongside whom he had fought to be arrogant. The Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts had convinced him that the rulers in London were as bad. By the time musket balls were flying in Lexington and Concord, he was convinced it was time for the colonists to take up arms. When the Second Continental Congress met in May 1775, it took upon itself core governmental tasks such as appointing ambassadors, borrowing money, and setting up a formal army, which, of course, needed a commander. When the debate was held on who should fill this position, Washington attended the proceedings in uni- form. The other delegates took the hint.

The new commander in chief ’s first job was to continue the siege of Boston. He reinforced the artillery around the city and bombarded the British into submission—though not surrender; in March 1776, they escaped by sea. Washington moved his headquarters to New York, but here things started to go wrong. In June, the British landed on Staten Island; Washington was outnumbered and had to retreat. He managed this with skill, slipping away rather than suffering formal defeat, but was then hounded across New Jersey. At the end of the year, his force escaped across the Delaware, after which both sides appeared to hunker down for the winter. Washington then led a guerrilla raid across the river on Christmas evening, capturing a force of German mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton, which restored honor. But overall, from a military point of view 1776 was not a year of American glory.

However, 1776 isn’t about the military point of view but about ideas.

On January 10, a pamphlet called Common Sense appeared. In it, the author (initially an anonymous “Englishman,” later revealed to be Thomas Paine) not only laid out arguments for independence but staked out a future for America: This was a chance to build a new nation, a republic based on rational, democratic principles. The pamphlet, in clear simple English, sold 100,000 copies and was read aloud in homes, at meetings, wherever people gathered. It convinced many colonists, previously uncertain where to place their loyalties, to join the fight against the crown.

On March 9, a book written by an eccentric Scottish academic was published in London. In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith talked about the newly emerging system of industrial production and competitive markets, which he believed would bring prosperity to many, not just to the already rich. In 1776, this book did not attract much attention in America, but in years to come its message would be taken to heart by the new nation.

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Then there was the Declaration of Independence. At the start of the year, Congress had been hesitant to formally make such a declaration, even though hostilities were open and irreversible. No state seemed to want to formally initiate the final break. On May 15, Virginia took the plunge. A committee of five sat down to draft a document, though in the end the writing was left to a thirty-three-year-old lawyer and landowner named Thomas Jefferson. The text was then edited (or “mangled,” to use Jefferson’s word) by various members of Congress, a process that included removing a long section accusing the British of foisting slavery onto unwilling plantation owners. The second sentence (the first explains why the Declaration is about to begin) is arguably the most famous in the English language:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It was the mission statement of a new nation.

The document was signed by the fifty-six members of Congress, although possibly not on July 4, the day it was presented in its final form to John Hancock, Congress’s president (a formal role abandoned in 1788). Hancock contributed a particularly expansive signature, commenting as he did so that King George should be able to read it without his glasses. All signatories knew that in signing they were risking their lives, as the Declaration would be seen as treasonable across the Atlantic. The text was quickly distributed around the thirteen new states—using the newly established Congres- sional Post, whose area of operation extended from Falmouth, Maine, to Savannah in Georgia. Washington read it to his troops, still in New York at that time, on July 9. On the same day in that city, a large equestrian statue of George III was torn down.

By coincidence, as these events were unfolding, 3,000 miles to the West, seaborne Spanish explorer/missionaries were making their way up the coast of a land they had named Las Californias after a fictional island ruled by fierce but beautiful Amazons. (Values haven’t changed much in Holly- wood.) In March they found a particularly fine harbor and made a fort at its mouth. A mission was built nearby, and five days before the signing of the Declaration, Fathers Palou and Cambon delivered its first mass, an event that is regarded as the official founding of San Francisco.

Back east, the fighting continued. Despite the morale boost of his Christmas victory at Trenton, the new year did not turn out to be a good one for George Washington. He was defeated by the British general William Howe at the Battle of Brandywine Creek and lost Philadelphia. However, farther north, things were going better. The British tried to march down the Hudson from Canada, hoping to meet up with their forces in New York and cut American territory in half. But they were harried the whole way, and when they met General Horatio Gates in Saratoga, still 160 miles north of New York, they were soundly beaten. Saratoga effectively ended the war in the north and, even better, attracted the attention of the French, who were eager for revenge on the British for the defeats of 1756–63 but who had been unwilling to support the colonists, afraid of backing a losing side. Saratoga reassured them that the Americans were winners.

Despite this good news, farther south Washington could only retreat further and find a place to sit out the winter, with a sick, demoralized, ragged army. Murmurs began to run around Congress that he should be replaced as overall commander by Gates.

Washington’s winter quarters were in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, which has since become a symbol of American fortitude and resourcefulness—often inspiring later stamp designs. A 1928 150th anniversary red/brown 2¢ shows Washington beneath a tree at these quarters, praying for the well-being of his troops. By 1976, stamp issues had become more extravagant and a special sheet was issued, based on William T. Trego’s 1883 painting of a Napoleonic-looking Washington, officers, and foot soldiers in the snow.

Washington used that winter to rebuild his army’s health, morale, and professionalism. The first of these he accomplished with a program of vaccination against smallpox, a killer disease that was threatening to destroy his troops. The second he achieved with his personal leadership. Men were encouraged by this tall, purposeful figure striding around the camp. The moments of prayer celebrated in the 1928 stamp were private; in public, the commander in chief exemplified confidence. The army’s professionalism was boosted by Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian mercenary originally recommended to Washington by the French. Honesty was not Steuben’s greatest virtue—he awarded himself a title and up- graded his original military rank, probably that of captain, to lieutenant general—but he was a man of genuine ability. He organized the layout of the camp, including preventing men from digging latrines right next to kitchens. He improved discipline through regular and repeated drills: no doubt unpopular with a force full of former guerrilla fighters, but essential if they were to win full-scale battles. He taught modern methods of fighting with bayonets. For all this, Steuben was made chief of staff and was honored on a stamp 152 years later. When Washington emerged from these quarters in the spring of 1778, it was with an army of revitalized professionals, while his opponents were just tired and far from home.

The war was not yet won, however. For the next two years fighting was intermittent, with no clear advantage accrued by either side. The British turned their attention to the far south and made early gains: Savannah and, in 1780, Charleston were captured. In the latter defeat, the Americans were not allowed the traditional surrender with honor, whereby they could march out with flags flying and muskets over their shoulders. Instead, they were made to furl their flags and march with muskets reversed (pointing downward). Horatio Gates, victor of Saratoga, was then trounced by the British at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina. By September 1780, the redcoats were marching north.

After Camden, Washington replaced Gates with Nathanael Greene, a former Quaker who had made his way up through the ranks and who favored guerrilla methods. His motto was “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” This proved too much for the immobile British; their commander, Charles Cornwallis, headed to what he thought was the safety of the Yorktown peninsula in southeast Virginia but was blockaded there by French ships. Washington marched south to do battle. He found his opponents well entrenched but slowly moved his lines closer, pushing the British into an ever-smaller space. On October 15, two strategic hills were captured, one by a force under the leadership of Colonel Alexander Hamilton. From these, the main British garrison could be bombarded. Four days later, Cornwallis surrendered—or got his second-in-command to surrender, pleading illness himself. Remembering what had happened at Charleston, Washington insisted the British troops march out with furled flags and muskets reversed. Their band played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

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Skirmishes continued for many months, and no formal treaty was signed until 1783. This took place in Paris, a location that must have delighted the French, who had essentially entered the war to exact revenge on the British. Apart from this pleasure, they gained little else, and in pursuing the war had amassed a large debt, which some historians argue triggered the 1789 French Revolution (during which Washing- ton’s ally Lafayette was forced to flee France and ended up in an Austrian jail, while his fellow commander at Yorktown, the Comte de Rochambeau, was imprisioned and was lucky not to be guillotined). Britain simply shrugged off the defeat and started thinking ahead to profitable trade with the new nation. The biggest losers from the war were the Native Americans, many of whom had sided with the British. In 1763, the western boundary of the colonies had been the crest of the Appalachians; in the Treaty of Paris, the United States received most the territories east of the Mississippi.

George Washington could have used his victory for all kinds of personal gain, monetary, political, or both. Instead, once the treaty was signed he emulated Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, resigning his commission and returning to working his estate at Mount Vernon.

However, like his hero, he was not able to stay a gentleman farmer for long . . .

Excerpt from A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West. A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps copyright © 2014 by Chris West. First Edition Published October 28, 2014, by Picador USA. All rights reserved.

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George Washington has appeared on more U.S. postage stamps than any other individual—including this one, the first issued for nationwide use, in 1847.
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Thursday, 13 November 2014 10:12 AM
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