Delawareans talk up Washington’s birthday

DOVER — Here in a home of history, George Washington still stands tall.

Less than a month after Washington’s death on Dec. 14, 1799, the Delaware General Assembly agreed to have a portrait as “large as life” in his honor.

The resolution said the legislators were “penetrated with grief and impressed with the deepest sense of sorrow, in consequence of the eventful and ever to be lamented death of the late illustrious chief and friend of America General George Washington.”

From the Editor logo copy copyThe portrait, now 214 years old, still hangs in the Old State House on The Green.

Monday is Washington’s birthday, so what could be a better place in Dover to observe the occasion?

The celebration starts at 1 p.m. The public is welcome.

Historical interpreters and distinguished historians will offer a number of readings.

Memorabilia will be shared by Delaware State University professor Samuel Hoff and a selection of books on Washington from Wesley College’s vast collection will be on display.

At 3 p.m., there will be a live showing of U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., reading President Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address.

For the past 120 years, the address has been read annually by a senator. Sen. Coons is the first Delaware senator to have the privilege.

The Farewell Address is famous for Washington’s warning that America’s strength would be threatened by party politics and interference of foreign powers.

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On Thursday, Delaware Historic and Cultural Affairs interpreter Tom Welch was enthusiastically sharing a rundown of the birthday plans and rattling off a long list of participants.

Under the fixed gaze of Washington in the portrait, he previewed a passage. It was George Mercer’s 1760 description of Washington.

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Tom Welch, an interpreter for the state’s Division of Historic and Cultural Affairs, will be among those celebrating the birthday of George Washington Monday at the Old State House. The massive portrait of Washington hangs in what was once the state Senate chamber. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

“He may be described as being as straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 pounds when he took his seat in the House of Burgesses in 1759.

“His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large, as are his feet and hands. He is wide shouldered, but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips, and has rather long legs and arms. His head is well shaped though not large, but is gracefully poised on a superb neck.

“A large and straight rather than prominent nose; blue-gray penetrating eyes, which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow. His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones, and terminates in a good firm chin. He has a clear though rather a colorless pale skin, which burns with the sun. A pleasing, benevolent, though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair, which he wears in a cue. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.

“His features are regular and placid, with all the muscles of his face under perfect control, though flexible and expressive of deep feeling when moved by emotion. In conversation he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential and engaging. His voice is agreeable rather than strong. His demeanor at all times composed and dignified. His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a splendid horseman.”

Mr. Welch, our readers will recall, is known for his passionate study of Smyrna’s Allen McLane — Delaware’s “unknown” hero.

McLane was a Revolutionary War volunteer who rose to the rank of captain and became a trusted member of Washington’s troops. Tales of his work as a spy are legendary.

Through his exploration of McLane, Mr. Welch has become more and more fascinated with General Washington.

He said it has been a joy to pull together the Washington birthday event.

Among the speakers will be colleague Ann Horsey who will share the story of the Washington portrait. Denis A. Volozan, a French-born artist, completed it in 1802 and delivered it to Dover Landing on the St. Jones River by sloop.

“We’ve got a potpourri — really it’s a very interesting set of readings,” Mr. Welch said.

He said the readings are not intended to be a full biography, but a collection of various topics chosen by or for the speakers.

For example, Kim Burdick, president of the George Washington Society, submitted a letter from Washington to John Hancock that recaps the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, the only Revolutionary War action in Delaware.

Beth Jelich, of the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning program, will read passages on winter encampments at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and Morristown, New Jersey. Latecia Prophet, of the Historical and Cultural Affairs staff, will cover Washington’s changing views on slavery.

Other presenters will include Dr. Hoff, George Washington Distinguished Professor of history and political science at Delaware State University; Dr. Stephanie Holyfield, assistant professor of history at Wesley College; Thomas Summers, outreach coordinator for the Delaware Public Archives; Deborah Wool, professor of Curatorial Studies at Wesley College; historian Larry Koch; and historical interpreters from the Old State House.

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Washington was a frequent traveler through northern Delaware, essentially on a path close to today’s I-95 but much slower with more potholes, when he made trips from Mount Vernon in Virginia to Philadelphia.

A 1932 booklet, prepared by the Public Archives Commission of Delaware, outlines several Washington diary entries and correspondence related to his stops in Delaware.

In one dated Sept. 19, 1787, he described what could have been a deadly accident at Christiana Bridge. The site was in the area of what now is Fourth Street in Wilmington.

He was on his way home from Philadelphia where a day earlier the Constitution had been adopted.

“For the rain which has fallen the preceding evening having swelled the water considerably, there was no fording it safely, I was reduced to the necessity therefore of remaining on the other side or of attempting to cross on an old rotten long disused bridge” he wrote. “Being anxious to get on I preferred the latter, and in the attempt one of my horses fell 15 feet at least, the other near following, which … would have taken the Carriage with baggage along with him and destroyed the whole effectively.”

With the help of men at a nearby mill, the first horse was freed and the second horse and carriage rescued.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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