Contact: Yvonne French (202) 707-9191

September 18, 1997

George Washington's Commission as Commander of the Continental Army Displayed Beginning November 22 in "American Treasures of the Library of Congress"

George Washington's commission as "commander-in-chief of the army of the United Colonies" will be on display for three months beginning November 22 at the Library of Congress. The 1775 commission is part of "American Treasures of the Library of Congress," a permanent, rotating exhibition of the rarest and most significant items in the Library relating to America's past.

"George Washington's commission symbolizes the American patriotism and revolutionary ardor that strengthened Americans for the battles of the American Revolution that cast off British colonial rule," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "I hope the American people will come to the nation's capital and see the commission for themselves. But for those who cannot, the document can be viewed from the Library's World Wide Web site" at

The Continental Congress commission was written on vellum in bold calligraphy and florid handwriting and signed by John Hancock of Massachusetts, president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson of Pennsylvania, secretary of the Continental Congress, on June 19, 1775.

At the time of his appointment, Washington (1732-1799) was a leader of the revolutionary movement in Virginia and had served as commander of Virginia's frontier forces and as a British colonial army officer. While others, including Hancock, hoped for the commission, Washington was appointed because of his military experience, and because the Continental Congress recognized the importance of involving Virginia in the military battle then centered in New England.

Reluctant to leave home, Washington wrote to his wife, Martha, in a June 18, 1775, letter: "You may believe me my dear Patsy, when I assure you in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it." Nevertheless, Washington set out immediately to take command of the American army that was besieging the British forces in Boston.

The commission is one of several "top treasures" of the Library of Congress being shown in the rotating "American Treasures" exhibition. The treasures are displayed for three months at a time in a unique case designed to prevent damage from exposure to light and air. The case weighs 3 tons, and stands 10 feet high and 12 feet long. Built according to the highest standards of preservation and security, it is reserved exclusively for the Library's rarest and most valuable items.

The commission replaces George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, which has been on view in the case since August. From May, when the exhibition opened, to August, Thomas Jefferson's "original rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence was displayed in the case.

Also newly on display in the top treasures case beginning November 22 will be:

  • a letter from John Hancock to George Washington dated July 6, 1776;
  • George Washington's reading copy of the Declaration of Independence;
  • Count de Rochambeau's atlas of troop encampments after the Battle of Yorktown, Va.; and
  • George Washington's diary describing the British surrender of Yorktown, Oct. 19, 1781.

Other items on display beginning November 22 include:

  • Diego Gutierrez's 1562 map of the Americas;
  • George Washington's letterbook open to his appointments to the first Supreme Court;
  • Robert E. Lee's lost orders before the battle of Antietam, Md.;
  • Teddy Roosevelt's diary entry at the death of his first wife; and
  • Lester Horton's 1930s costume designs for Sacre du Printemps.

"American Treasures of the Library of Congress" is the Library's first permanent exhibition. Its selection of rare books, music, manuscripts, maps, photographs, drawings, audio clips and videotapes gives visitors a firsthand look at a cross section of the vast repository that has been called "America's Memory." Highlights of the exhibition include the first surviving book printed in America, early baseball cards, the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night of his assassination, and a photograph of the Wright brothers' first flight taken at the instant of takeoff.

The exhibition displays 240 items arranged in the manner of Thomas Jefferson's library, the seed from which the present Library of Congress collections grew. In addition, an audio tour featuring selections from the Library's collection of sound recordings provides an array of memories, many of them drawn from the early years of radio and TV broadcasting archived in the Library's collections. Listeners can hear both narration about and the actual voices of presidents, poets and other famous figures, including Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Frost and Woodrow Wilson. The 2 -hour audio tour also features music, including the voices of Beverly Sills and Jelly Roll Morton.

The self-directed listening device is a digital audio wand, which allows the user random access to audio presentations at various points in the exhibition through the use of a numeric keypad. Visitors may rent the wand at the entry to the exhibition from Thwaite Productions for $2.50.

"Treasures Talks" with the curators of particular items in "American Treasures" are being held at noon each Wednesday at a featured display case in the exhibition hall. The half-hour talks are free. For information about the talks, call (202) 707-5223.

Harry N. Abrams Inc. has published a companion volume with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills and a foreword by Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. American Treasures in the Library of Congress: Memory/Reason/ Imagination ($39.95) is available in the Library sales shops and wherever books are sold.

The exhibition, made possible by a grant of $1.1 million from the Xerox Foundation, is the set piece of a yearlong celebration marking the official reopening of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building during its 100th anniversary year. The Jefferson Building, under renovation since 1984, may now be seen in its fully restored state. Located at 10 First Street S.E., it is closed on Sundays and federal holidays. "American Treasures" exhibition hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Both the building and the exhibition are barrier-free and accessible to persons with disabilities. Tickets are no longer required for entrance.

Groups of 10 or more are requested to call the Visitor Services Office at (202) 707-9779 to arrange a tour. For recorded information about the exhibition, call (202) 707-3834, (202) 707-6200 TTY.

Note to press: black-and-white photographs and color transparencies of George Washington's commission and of other selected items in the exhibition are available from the Public Affairs Office. Call (202) 707-9191 for delivery of duplicates.

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PR 97-149
ISSN 0731-3527

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