First State celebrates first president

DOVER — “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Written as a eulogy, those words described George Washington, the man honored as the ideal American. Monday marked the 280th anniversary of his birth.

To mark the occasion, about 40 people came together in Dover to honor and reflect on the nation’s first president. Gathered in the Old State House, they heard from a handful of speakers, including professors and historic re-enactors.

“Today we’re here to celebrate the life, military career and governmental service of a man whom we all regard as the greatest American, the first American, the father of our country, George Washington,” said Tom Welch, an interpreter with the Division of Historic and Cultural Affairs. “We’ve made him a hero, we’ve deified him to the point that he is considered perfect.

“He certainly was outstanding in his attributes but he was not perfect. There’s no doubt that no one gave more of himself to the cause of liberty and independence than George Washington, and none gave more of himself to the formation of our fledgling nation than George Washington.”

Speakers read letters written by and to Washington, as well as texts on the man commonly ranked as one of America’s top three presidents.

In doing so, they shined some light on his life ranging from his boyhood to his presidency. There was a description of Washington (tall and “straight as an Indian” with “A large and straight rather than prominent nose” and a mouth that “is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth”), a story of how a fellow Founding Father incurred his wrath by slapping him on the back as part of a bet and an explanation of how Washington’s views on slavery seem to have changed over time.

Upstairs, a host of Washington memorabilia was on display in the room that had until 1933 been the official meeting place of the state Senate. Books from Wesley College’s Washington Collection sat near coins, key chains, pamphlets and other items from Delaware State University history professor Sam Hoff, allowing visitors to see the different ways Washington has been posthumously honored.

Dr. Hoff believes that even as science, technology, engineering and math are increasingly emphasized in schools, history and the arts as a whole remain of tremendous importance. Washington continues to attract attention for his many pivotal roles in American history, he said.

“When you think about (where we started) and when you think about where we ended up, it’s a miracle,” he said.

Hanging on the wall in the room is a life-size portrait of Washington ordered just weeks after Washington’s 1799 death. Painted by Denis Volozan for $400, the painting has been restored on eight separate occasions over the centuries. It has been neglected at times, including as the recipient of some less-than-satisfactory restoration efforts, said Ann Baker Horsey, with the Division of Historic and Cultural Affairs.

Mr. Welch began putting the event together about six weeks ago after reaching out to several Washington experts. He said he was pleased with the turnout for the first celebration of Washington’s Birthday.

“It ain’t the last,” he said.

Stephanie Holyfield, a history professor at Wesley, read a 1787 diary entry from Washington that told a narrow escape from disaster. Traveling from Philadelphia after the creation of the Constitution, he passed through Wilmington.

“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.”

Hartly resident Eleanor Matthews, who used to work at the New Castle Court House, called the program “wonderful.” A fan of history and of Washington, she attended the event after reading about it in a newspaper.

About 82 miles to the west, in the city named for the America’s first president, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., was given the honor of reading Washington’s Farewell Address.

The speech has been read annually by a senator since 1862, and Sen. Coons is the first Delawarean to be selected for the address.

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