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The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic


One of the most extensive exhibitions ever undertaken on the life, political aspirations, and achievements of George Washington, The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic opens at the Morgan Library on September 16, 1999, and remains on view through January 9, 2000. Commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of Washington's death, The Great Experiment follows his evolution from a loyal British subject to the leader of a complex revolution to the country's first president and explores his personal history and the development of the persona that -- even in his own lifetime -- made him appear more monument than man.

The Great Experiment focuses on key moments in Washington's life, such as his decisions to retire as young commander in chief of the American forces at the height of his power, an act that remains uncommon today, and to leave the presidential office after two terms, setting a precedent that was not broken until Franklin D. Roosevelt secured a third term in 1940. The presentation revivifies the urgency of the situation Washington and his peers faced and brings to life the genuinely revolutionary process that brought forth the first successful modern republican nation. The materials on view show how pivotal Washington was to the creation of the new republic.

The exhibition at the Morgan Library is made possible by Betty Wold Johnson. Major support is provided by the Gilder Foundation, Inc., and Metropolitan Life Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Sue Erpf Van de Bovenkamp. The Anniversary Year of exhibitions and programs is sponsored by J.P Morgan, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, New York Stock Exchange, Inc., and The New York Times Company Foundation, Inc.

Drawn primarily from the collections of the Morgan Library, the Gilder Lehrman Collection -- on deposit at the Morgan Library -- and the Huntington Library, San Marino, Califomia, The Great Experiment includes approximately 100 manuscripts, letters, rare printed documents, objects, maps, and published writings that demonstrate both Washington's growth as a man and the untested government of the United States of America. It is presented in conjunction with the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, where it was on view from October 6, 1998, through May 30, 1999. The exhibition was organized by John Rhodehamel, Norris Foundation Curator of American History at the Huntington. The curator in charge of the exhibition at the Morgan Library is Robert Parks, Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. The accompanying catalogue, published by Yale University Press, includes an essay by Rhodehamel.


Exhibition Arrangement and Highlights

For nearly a quarter century, George Washington was the most influential man in America. He commanded the Continental army from 1775 to 1783, presided over the drafting of the Constitution, and served as president from 1789 to 1797. His greatness, however, was not predestined. In the exhibition catalogue, Rhodehamel writes, "But George Washington did not get his start in life as a marble colossus on a pedestal. Washington's act of self-creation was one of the most comprehensive in all of America's long procession of self-made men."

The Great Experimeurt traces the course of this process and Washington's political impact on America. Divided into five sections--Early Life, The Revolution, The Constitution, The Presidency, and Farewell -- the exhibition illustrates, in Washington's own hand, his struggle to join the Virginia gentry, his business as a land speculator, and his public life, upon which the future of the United States was built.

Images from top to bottom: Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) Life Mask of George Wasshington, plaster, taken at Mt. Vernon, October 1785, 12 1/2 inches high, The Pierpont Morgan Library, Purchased by Pierpont Morgan © The Pierpont Morgan Library; Two stars from General Washingon's uniform, with locks of hair of George and Martha Washington, The Pierpont Morgan Library, Gift of Louisa Lee Schuyler and Georgina Schuyler, 1924, MA 6029 © The Pierpont Morgan Library; Paul Revere (1735-1818) The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in...Boston on March 5, 1770, Boston, 1770, Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at The Pierpont Morgan Library, GLC 1868 Photo © The Pierpont Morgan Library; François X. Habermann (1721-1796) Representation du Feu terrible a Nouvelle Yorck... 19 September 1776, Augsburg, c. 1778, The Huntington Library, HL 88539 © The Huntington Library

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