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Washington's words and world

When you think of George Washington, you think of his accomplishments: Revolutionary War general, America's first president, the man who said "I cannot tell a lie." In the late 20th century, though, Washington's presence seems diminished in school textbooks. Students cannot even recall the myths of Washington, much less the true man.

An exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City (through Jan. 9, 2000) gives visitors a clearer view of America's first president. The show, first seen at the Huntington in San Marino, Calif., features many documents in Washington's hand as well as other artifacts from the Huntington and Morgan Libraries.

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Whoever held the post of first president of the United States was destined for fame, but Washington did more than hold office. He held the young democracy together. The exhibit, entitled "The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic," reminds viewers that the nation was indeed an experiment, and that it had every chance of failing. Washington, who wanted nothing more than to retreat to his Virginia farm after his first term, was persuaded to stay in office for a second. He feared the Union might not survive if he left. Deep divisions between the Republicans and the Federalists and a strong sympathy for aristocracy were serious threats. Washington felt he had to stay on until the new nation gained stability.

Visitors to the exhibition have speculated that the country needs another leader like Washington today: He was a gentleman, a man of virtue; he dreaded the prospect of America becoming entangled in European conflicts. Exhibit curator John Rhodehamel disagrees. While the American experiment succeeded because of him, Washington was "a classical hero who belonged to a different time. But we needed him then."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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