While not a Roman Catholic, George Washington (1732-1799), renowned military leader of the American Revolution and groundbreaking first President of the United States, instead was a moderate Anglican in faith. However, throughout his life he socialized with many Catholics, ranging from the prominent Carroll family of Maryland to his many French and Polish born army officers, such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Kosciuszko. Washington also once attended a Catholic mass in Philadelphia and contributed funds towards the construction of a Catholic church in Baltimore. As Commander-in-Chief, he diplomatically banned the raucous anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes celebration in November of 1775. Washington subsequently evolved into a mythic ‘Father of His Country,’ with Americans of every stripe honoring his memory and collecting relevant documents, art, and other memorabilia. American Catholics have certainly been part of this process. The President’s Day national holiday is a fitting time to take a look at the many Washington related collectable items housed in the Special Collections of The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C.
The Rare Books Department of Special Collections includes two notable Washington items. The first is a 1790 exchange of addresses with American Catholics, bound together with an 1857 edition. John Carroll of Maryland was selected as the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States in 1789, the same year Washington became the nation’s first President. As one of his first official acts as bishop, Carroll wrote an address in March of 1790 on behalf of American Catholics congratulating the President on his office and complimenting him on his “respect for religion” and “unwearied attention to the moral and physical improvement of our country.” In reply, he assured Catholics they were “equally entitled to the protection of civil Government” as well as thanking them for their Revolutionary War service. The second is a 1921 pamphlet titled George Washington and the Constitution of the United States authored by James Gibbons, Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore and a founder of Catholic University. In it Gibbons extolled the virtues of The Constitution “as the greatest instrument of government that ever passed” and argued that by securing its adoption Washington “made all mankind his debtor forever.”
The University Museum also has two interesting Washington related items. The first, originally thought to be the famous 1796 Landsdown Portrait by Gilbert Stuart or a Stuart sanctioned copyist, now appears to be one of possibly four or five apparently rogue copies by English born American landscape artist William Winstanley. After being on display in The Catholic Club of New York, it was donated to Catholic University ca. 1940 by Cardinal Francis Spellman. The second, is an alleged piece of the elm tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, according to local legend, Washington assumed command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775, during the Siege of Boston against the British. Sadly, the tree was chopped down in 1923. However, a thousand pieces were salvaged as relics and distributed to interested parties. Father John J. Ryan gifted a piece to Catholic University in 1924, with an attending plaque stating it was “Presented by the city of Cambridge.”
The records of both the University Archives and The American Catholic History Research Center contain materials documenting the participation of Catholics in the bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth. The George Washington Bicentennial Commission, established in 1924 by a joint resolution of the Congress of the United States and signed by President Calvin Coolidge, sponsored a series of nationwide celebrations in 1932 to the 200th anniversary. The Commission presented Washington on national, state, and local levels as farmer, soldier, and statesman rather than the largely fictitious caricature of popular culture. The National Catholic celebration was held on Memorial Day, 28 May 1932, at Catholic University, with nearly 60,000 people attending. A military field mass conducted in the Stadium as the service was broadcast from coast to coast on radio. Finally, the Archives’ popular Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact comic book collection, widely distributed in Catholic parochial schools, includes their colorful take on the familiar story of the eventful life of the young Washington published in a 1947 issue.