In the fall of 1789, George Washington ordered a printed copy of the Constitution along with the laws passed by the First Federal Congress. A book binder bound the printed sheets in leather and added the words "President of the United States" to the front cover. Washington referred to the volume as the "Acts of Congress." Inside, he made a few short marginal notations next to key passages in the Constitution. You can see a digitized version of the Acts of Congress here.
Why did Washington write in this book? And what can his brief scribbles tell us about how he interpreted the Constitution as well as his actions as the first president of the United States?
In our own time we wrestle with questions about the Constitution’s meaning. Is it a document fixed in time, to be understood as its Framers and the American people understood it in the 18th century, or is it a living, flexible document responsive to historical change?
Washington’s answers to these questions may surprise you.
On today’s episode, Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky of the White House Historical Association helps us to understand George Washington’s Constitution. She is the author of a recently published article in the journal Law and History Review that is the first to make sense of Washington’s careful notations. She is also the author of a soon to be published book entitled The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.
You can read Dr. Chervinsky's short overview of the Acts of Congress on the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.
Dr. Chervinsky dropped by the studio after speaking with teachers as part of Mount Vernon's Teacher's Institute. If you are a teacher, click the link to learn how you can participate in this program.
This is Part 3 of our Explorations in Early American Law mini-series. Be sure to check out Part 1 with Dr. Nicola Phillips and Part 2 with Dr. Kate Brown.
About Our Guest:
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a White House Historian for the White House Historical Association. She received her B.A. with honors in history and political science from George Washington University and her masters and Ph.D. in Early American History from the University of California, Davis. She also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University before joining the WHHA. Her book, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, will be published by Harvard University Press on April 7, 2020. She has also published articles in the Law and History Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and Oxford Foreign Relations, and written opinion pieces for Time and The Washington Post.
About Our Host:
Jim Ambuske leads the digital history initiatives at the Washington Library. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2016 with a focus on Scotland and America in an Age of War and Revolution. He is a former Farmer Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia Law Library. At UVA, Ambuske co-directed the 1828 Catalogue Project and the Scottish Court of Session Project. Ambuske is currently at work on a book entitled Emigration and Empire: America and Scotland in the Revolutionary Era, as well as a chapter on Scottish loyalism during the American Revolution for a volume to be published by the University of Edinburgh Press.