June 24, 2012

Harte, Washington, and a simple, patriotic act

"I have been to [George] Washington's Headquarters, at Morristown," begins an account by Bret Harte dated June 24, 1873 under the title "Washington in New Jersey: An Old Homestead." "The adult American who has not at some time stood beneath the same roof that once sheltered the Father of his country is to be pitied and feared." The visit, Harte writes, is a "simple, patriotic act" which would only be avoided by those guilty of "moral turpitude." Further, he notes, that "the number of roofs that Washington has slept under" shows he made a strong effort to make the shared experience "within the easy reach of every American citizen."

What inspired Harte to visit this particular roof of Washington's was the word that it would be sold at public auction. Walking up to the home "on that bright day of yellow June," he was immediately taken by what he saw. Speculating on what remained from Washington's time (the looking-glass, he assumed, was a notable artifact, as Washington undoubtedly used it while shaving). The home, he determined, was modest though dignified, and "far unlike the Cambridge Headquarters" he had previously visited in Massachusetts and referred to as a "precious jewel." Nevertheless, that humble, quiet, home in New Jersey affected Harte deeply: "Even in this gracious June sunlight you shiver and turn cold."

Harte, unsurprisingly, was concerned about the future of this historical spot. Worried what would happen when the auctioner finally slammed down his hammer: "Going, going. There is a glory on its roof for a moment, and it is Gone." The good news? A society of historians purchased the home and began its preservation. Some 60 years later, it became a unit of the National Park Service.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate the way Harte feared the ignorance of some Americans. How many Americans today understand the Constitution and the separation of church and state?

    Ignorant voters are a threat to democracy.