When George Washington’s personal, annotated copy of the Constitution sold last week for $9.8 million at auction in New York, it didn’t just set a record. It allowed us to see, for the first time, how cautiously our first president assumed the office, his eyes not toward history but the future.
“This shows that he let the presidency define him, rather than for him to define the presidency,” says Edward Lengel, military historian and author of two books on Washington. “He was a man who thought scrupulously, and he was very concerned with precedent. He understood that his own approach would define how his successors approached the presidency.”
Though the markings are scant — it is next to but a few paragraphs that Washington has made notations — they are telling: He is more concerned with the limits of the office than its powers.
“These are marginal notes by a very thoughtful, contemplative Washington,” says Mary V. Thompson, research historian at the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens (its Ladies’ Association was the successful bidder). “It looks as though he was very methodically outlining what his role as president entailed, as it was set up in the Constitution, so that he knew what he should be doing and didn’t overstep the bounds of his office.”
Would Washington recognize the more elastic nature of the office today? He was highly attuned to the residual fear and loathing of a power structure that in any way resembled a monarchy, or despotism. Yet throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve seen presidential powers silently expand past their constitutional limits: from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order sending thousands of Japanese-Americans to interment camps in 1942 to George W. Bush’s policies of rendition and the indefinite imprisonment of suspected terrorists, extended by Barack Obama, who also intervened in Libya without a congressional vote.