George Washington enjoyed dirty jokes. Yes, that Washington. The dollar bill guy.
Ron Chernow writes in Washington: A Life that “when breeding animals, Washington wrote about their couplings with a dry, facetious mirth.” Presumably his jokes weren’t as dry as Chernow’s description of them.
The dirtiest surviving Washington joke was made at the expense of Colonel Joseph Ward, a peer of Washington’s who announced his first marriage at the belated age of 47. Chernow quotes Washington as saying, “Like a prudent General [Ward] reviewed his strength, his arms, and ammunition before he got involved in an action. But if these have been neglected […] let me advise him to make his first onset upon his fair [bride] with vigor that the impression may be deep, if it cannot be lasting or frequently renewed.”
We would know more about Washington’s coarser side if not for J.P. Morgan, Jr., the son of–you guessed it–Cornelius Vanderbilt. Junior grew up during the Gilded Age, inheriting Daddy’s business, fortune, and vast library in 1913. Like many of the robber barons of the time, Junior had a philanthropic side; well, Daddy had a philanthropic side. Morgan Sr.’s last request was that his collection of rare books and manuscripts, preserved at the Morgan Library & Museum in 1906, be made public after his death.
It’s a stunning collection that includes illuminated manuscripts, original manuscripts by Balzac and Walter Scott, Gutenberg Bibles, and artwork by Renaissance masters. What the Morgan library does not contain is a group of letters written by George Washington and destroyed by J.P. Morgan, Jr. sometime during the 1920s because they were “smutty.” Chernow notes that Junior owned these letters, but did he really? It’s altogether possible that they were part of his father’s collection, and that the puritanical Junior destroyed them before the Morgan Library went public in 1924. It’s also possible that he believed that he was performing a civic duty by protecting the flawless father of our country from historical slander by way of hard evidence.
Or maybe Junior picked up the letters at auction specifically to burn them, I don’t know. The only question of interest to me is this: Were Washington’s “smutty” letters J.P. Morgan, Jr.’s to destroy?
By the time they were destroyed, the Washington letters had survived roughly 150 years. They probably changed hands at least a half dozen times, either by sale or inheritance, their fragile paper manhandled hundreds or even thousands of times. A century and a half is a remarkable lifetime for something as ephemeral as a letter, and if not for their famous author these likely would not have survived to see their sesquicentennial.
Those hypothetical half dozen owners, then, must have recognized the historical significance of Washington’s smutty letters. They may have purchased them as investments or for bragging rights, to titter at their salaciousness or to protect them for posterity. Regardless, each successive owner acted as the letters’ caretaker, gently nudging the correspondence farther into the future. And then along came Junior, who destroyed not just a batch of old letters but firsthand evidence that George Washington actually possessed both a personality and a sense of humor.
One can argue that Morgan was entitled to do whatever he wanted with the Washington letters. He owned them, after all, at least in the legal sense. But to my eye they were never his to destroy.
This same dilemma (with significantly lower historical stakes) presents itself regularly on Pawn Stars, a popular reality show that resets PBS’s Antiques Roadshow inside a Las Vegas pawn shop and adds the dimension of the deal. “This is my great grandfather’s flight jacket,” a guest might say. “He was a World War One ace and one of the first airmail pilots.”
“That’s pretty neat. How did you get it?” Rick, the show’s star and the shop’s owner might ask.
“Oh, it’s been handed down from father to son for the last hundred years.”
“Okay, how much do you want for it?”
“I was thinking a thousand dollars.”
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”
“Will you do $900?”
“No. Look, the liner is shot and it’s missing a button. If your great grandfather was somebody important I’d give you 900 bucks no problem, but nobody cares who he was. I’ll give you $200, and that’s it.”
“Can you go $225? It really means a lot to us.”
This is the moment that I start screaming at my television: “If it means so much to you then why are you selling it, you heartless bastard? You’re exchanging your family’s history for two and a quarter? It’s not even yours to sell! If you don’t want it, give it to a relative who will appreciate it!” They never listen to me. Inevitably the weasels take the money, and in the post-deal interview they chirp that the cash will go toward a steak dinner or a night at the casino.
Frustrated, I’ll switch channels to one of the 1,500 car shows currently airing. If I’m lucky I’ll land on one that’s focused on restoration, but more often than not customization is the name of the game. A recent episode of Fast N’ Loud, for example, featured a low mileage, original and unrestored Datsun 240Z that the show’s crew proceeded to tear apart and reassemble as a “tuner car,” the new generation of hot rods built most often from Japanese imports. Imagine that noisy Honda Accord in your neighborhood, the one with the cheap plastic fender flares and the enormous wing bolted to the trunk lid, and a giant tachometer strapped to the steering column. That’s what these savages did to a museum worthy example of a 240Z, a car that survived intact for 40 years only to be mutilated for a reality show.
Now, I have nothing against hot rods; in fact, I like them. There are plenty of beat to shit old Datsuns out there that would be much better off as tuner cars than simply rusting in junkyards. But that specific, perfectly maintained, low mileage car mangled by the Gas Monkeys; well, it can never be an all original 240Z again.
What irritates me about all three of these examples is the hubris of the destroyed or discarded objects’ owners. In truth we own virtually nothing; rather, we are caretakers, curators. The only true owner of the Washington letters was their intended recipient, and even he or she was probably aware that death would separate owner from property. Once they left Washington’s hands, the only person with the right to destroy them was the recipient. Each subsequent “owner” was really just a caretaker. The letters themselves belonged to the historical record, to America, to humanity, or however one may choose to articulate such things.
I can pinpoint the exact moment that this view of caretaker vs. owner calcified within me. I was ten years old and visiting my grandfather. He was not a wealthy man, his house not much more than a shack in the mountains. My granddad sat me down at his kitchen table, and then he retrieved a cardboard box from a nearby closet. Inside awaited albums filled with postage stamps. “Your great uncle Frank started this collection,” he said. “Now I want you to take care of it. Keep it going. When it’s time you hand it down to someone you know will take care of it.”
The old man might have just been trying to free up some closet space, but to me it felt like a solemn obligation. I was now part of something bigger, something that connected Great Uncle Frank, Grandpa, and me to future generations. The fact that my granddad couldn’t really afford something as impractical as a stamp collection and yet he did his part during his tenure added poignancy to the whole thing. I’ve played the role of caretaker in the decades since, and it’s never occurred to me that those stamps are my collection. They belong to a lineage that includes me. My job is just to keep them safe and make sure that they find their way to the next family member who understands that.
I’m surrounded by collections these days, some long dormant, like the comic books I loved as a teen, and some quite active, like my books and records. I approach them all in much the same way: I’m just the caretaker, the curator. I might not be interested in my comics anymore, but somebody will be. Until I find that person, I need to keep them cool, dry, dark, and upright, properly stored in bags and boxes. As for my books, I’d sooner die than write in their margins or dog ear their pages. They’ll be somebody else’s books someday, after all. I don’t own any of this junk–I’m just holding onto it for a little while.
I don’t even own my body, really. Eventually whatever that essence is that is described as me will leave my skin and bones to their new owners, the bugs and microbial life that will break it all down. Our bodies are just recyclables for which we pay no deposit.
I suspect that owners and caretakers see the world very differently. When one believes that he or she doesn’t really own anything but simply is entrusted with its care, he or she is less likely to do damage. “Leave people better than you found them” is a caretaker adage, “grab them by the pussy” is the assertion of an owner. Caretakers leave tiny footprints while owners level hilltops.
The only thing we personally own is our indescribable essence, that spark of life that animates our meat and bones. That is ours to do with as we wish–to nurture or neglect, to cultivate or exterminate. The rest of this–from our Franklin Mint collector plates to the very planet upon which we stand–is simply on loan to us for a brief moment. None of this junk is really ours. We’re just taking care of it for a little while.
I guess my point here is that J.P. Morgan, Jr. was a real asshole.