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March 2023
2min read

We look different this month. As a letter from our president explained to you recently, and as our publisher points out again in her enclosed note, it was the appalling rise in the cost of everything we need to produce the magazine and get it into your hands—paper, ink, printing, binding, postage, and the rest—that finally made the decision to adopt flexible covers imperative.

Be assured, though, that the quality of the magazine will remain the same. Our beat is still precisely as Bruce Catton defined it in our first issue: “anything that ever happened in America.” We think the new format works very well indeed, thanks largely to the handsome design devised by our art director, Murray Belsky. But more than that, we believe that the flexibly bound magazine will provide another, non-economic advantage: increased access to history. It is our hope that a less expensive, less formal-looking magazine will help attract a new generation of readers eager to understand our shared heritage.

The special, selfless kind of heroism symbolized by the portrait of Washington on our front cover is the subject of our lead story this month, written by Carry Wills. And this painting also has a great deal to do with access. It, and its companion on the back cover, are, of course, details from the Athenaeum portraits of the Father and Mother of our country, painted by Gilbert Stuart, and currently the subject of a fierce tug of war between the angry citizenry of Massachusetts and their rulers at Washington.

The portraits were commissioned by Mrs. Washington herself, and, though the painting of her husband is not Stuart’s most accurate rendering—that honor belongs to his first, the so-called Vaughan portrait, in which the President’s stern features have not been so deftly gentled by the painter’s brush—it is the best known and best loved, presiding benevolently over ten thousand classrooms and peering up from each and every dollar bill.

Stuart knew he had a good thing in this”portrait and, to Mrs. Washington’s intense annoyance, refused ever to complete the background, keeping the painting in his studio as a source for making copies: he dashed off at least eighty, taking no more than two hours for each.

The originals have a special meaning for Bostonians. They have hung in that city since 1831, when members of the Athenaeum, that august private library on Beacon Street, bought the pair from Stuart’s widow for $1,500. For over a century they have been on loan to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Enter the Feds. In recent years the Athenaeum has fallen on hard times, and last April, when the National Portrait Gallery offered $5,000,000 for the Washingtons, its trustees accepted. Bostonians at once closed ranks against the invader, much as they had two hundred years ago under the general whose portrait they now wish to save. The city threatened to sue to keep the canvases in town, the state attorney general ordered that the paintings not be sold without his permission, and the Athenaeum agreed to put off the sale until year’s end while a citizens’ committee, led by General James M. Gavin, sought to match the federal offer so that “this elderly couple should not be evicted from the home they love.”

At this writing it seems unlikely they will meet their goal. This is a pity. It is understandable that the National Gallery should try to snap up such treasures, but it is also disturbing to see centralized so much of the nation’s art—as well as her money and power. That, after all, is at least part of what the general’s Revolution was about.

—Geoffrey Ward

We hope you enjoy our work.

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Stories published from "February/March 1980"

Authored by: Barbara Klaw


Authored by: Ben Yagoda

The curious career of the Hays Office

Authored by: The Editors

A splendid gathering of American folk art—half a century before its time

Authored by: The Editors

A Connecticut photographer’s record of life in a shipbuilding town

Authored by: The Editors

A major new exhibition celebrates the bright, idiosyncratic paintings of America’s folk artists

Authored by: Garry Wills

In an age of ersatz heroes, a fresh look at the real thing

Authored by: The Editors

Unpublished letters from Dean Acheson to Ex-President Harry Truman

Authored by: Elton Mack

A Marine Remembers the Battle for Belleau Wood

Authored by: Joseph Conlin

It saved the early Colonists from starvation, it has caused men to murder each other, it used to be our most democratic food—in short, an extraordinary bivalve

Authored by: Larry Meyer

The last homesteading community, a Depression-era experiment—and a selection of the rare color photographs that recorded it

Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.