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July 1, 2006 Contact: James David Moran
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On-line history journal reveals
George Washington, a would-be abolitionist hero

Worcester, MA—The July 2006 issue of Common-place, the online history journal, reveals how George Washington’s intent to take a strong stance against slavery was thwarted by the heirs of his wife.

In a Common Reading interview, Henry Wiencek, author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) notes that slavery was "a huge moral issue for George Washington in the last year of his life." The founding father directed in his will that his own slaves be freed after his death.

In the interview with Common-place editor Edward Gray, Wiencek recounts his discovery of unpublished letters from Washington's negotiations with a Custis heir, in which a very detailed plan to free all the slaves at Mount Vernon, both his own and his wife’s, is outlined. However, the heir of Martha Custis resisted, "thus preventing the president from taking a forceful stand on emancipation," Wiencek said.

Another view of Washington—his role in the mythical chopping of his father’s cherry tree—is revealed in Steven Biel’s article, "Parson Weems Fights Fascists"

Biel uses the 1939 Grant Wood painting, "Parson Weems’ Fable" that depicts the cherry tree myth to explain how the national "trait" of mythmaking fostered patriotism in the years leading up to World War II.

In "The Common Dust of Potter’s Field," Thomas Bahde writes that the burial ground for indigent New Yorkers was both a physical place and a cultural symbol imbued with instructional possibilities.

"Antebellum New Yorkers wanted to be frightened and disgusted by the Potter’s Field… because they expected that its occupants, in life, had been the same," Bahde writes.

"Collision of Interests," by Jerry Morsman, discusses the celebrated Effie Afton court case in 1857 that pitted supporters of free navigation of the country’s waterways against the builders of the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi.

Among the lawyers defending the bridge builders was Abraham Lincoln who cited the need to accommodate expanding east-west travel. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually decided the case in favor of the railroad.

Writing in Talk of the Past, Gray grapples with defining America—as a melting pot, a set of values, or the sheer abundance of our resources.

"The shrill meaning-of-America-as-patriotic-mantra explanation of America is a depressing reminder of just how intellectually marginal the question, ‘What does America mean?’ has become," Gray writes.

Anyone who is or has been a parent of teenagers will relate to writer Catherine A. Corman’s account of her son’s metamorphosis from childhood—in the middle of an excursion to Maya ruins. Corman’s account, "Adolescent Equinox," appears in Pastimes.

In Object Lessons, writer Brendan McConville finds the political values of eighteenth century New York reflected in the design of a silver communion spoon.

Carol Berkin learned valuable teaching techniques from her students and applied them to her writing of popular history. Her account, "Doing History," is in Ask the Author.

Writer David Morgan traces the origins of religious tracts disseminated in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in "Print and Evangelicalism" in Tales from the Vault.

In The Common School, Dean Eastman and Kevin McGrath tell how students at a Massachusetts high school brought history to life by researching and creating an authentic stone wall.

The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by Peter C. Baldwin; Sean Patrick Adams’, Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America, by Warren R. Hofstra;

Bruce Ackerman’s, The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy, by Jeff Broadwater; Fred Anderson and Andrew Clayton’s, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-200,0 by Matthew Pinsker.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal’s features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world.

The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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