Artwork featuring George Washington on display inside the Union League in Philadelphia. (Joel Achenbach)

PHILADELPHIA — In an old brick building on Locust Street, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania this week displayed an early draft of the Constitution, with words and phrases scratched out, and one section marked with a big “X,” a wholesale deletion. Drafted by James Wilson sometime in July or August 1787, the text refers to “the United People and States of America.”

So, yeah, they were still working on the name of the country at that point. We could have become a nation where people chant “UPSA! UPSA!”

They were improvising. They had no template for what they were writing. They couldn’t Google “constitution.”

Because we’ve read the history books, with their orderly sequence of events, we too easily forget that in the actual moments when these things happened, no one knew how it would all turn out.

“We think that everything was preordained,” observed historical society spokesman Vincent Fraley as he stood over priceless documents kept in glass cases. (Among other treasures, the society has two early printings of the Declaration of Independence, including one with the erroneous date of June 1776.)

The one thing that did seem inevitable in the summer of 1787 was that George Washington would be the first chief executive of the new government. Two and a half centuries before Donald Trump cast himself as the one person who can save America (“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it”), Washington was actually such a man.

Like Trump, Washington was quite obsessed with real estate. He had amassed more than 50,000 acres, much of it in the Ohio Country, making him extraordinarily wealthy on paper — though so cash-poor that in 1789 he would have to borrow money to travel to his first presidential inauguration.

Washington was the young nation’s premier celebrity (though Ben Franklin might challenge him for that title). Washington was fussy about his image, the style of his clothes, the design of his carriage. He liked living in a big house and riding a white horse. “He was very interested in perception. That’s why he was always fastidious in how he dressed as an officer and as a gentleman,” said Fraley, whose treasures include a 1796 “pocket diary” in which Washington tersely recounts the day’s weather (i.e., “Clear and warm all day and but little wind”).

Washington’s most remarkable feature, as historians such as Garry Wills have noted, was that his insistence on relinquishing his power.

He could have been a strongman. He chose a different path, for the good of the republic. After the victory over the British, Washington resigned his commission as leader of the army in 1783, retiring to Mount Vernon and, he vowed, a quiet life on his farm, under his vine and fig tree. King George III had asked the painter Benjamin West what Washington would do if he won the Revolutionary War. West had said he’d return to his farm. The king, West later recounted, said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” [Garry Wills, “Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment,” p. 13]

Of course he didn’t really retire, and found himself here in Philadelphia in May of 1787, presiding over the convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. The work of the 55 delegates was shrouded in secrecy. They covered the windows in the Pennsylvania State House lest anyone look inside. Democrats here in Philadelphia saw this week how brutally hot it can get in summer; one can imagine the Framers huddled in their gloomy hothouse, with Washington silently sitting up front, lending the affair a credibility it would otherwise have lacked.

Washington returned to Philadelphia in 1790 when the city became the nation’s interim capital. In 1796, he once again announced his retirement, setting a crucial precedent. Two terms was enough. Again, Washington struck a blow for democracy and against a quasi-monarchical autocracy.

When he wrote his last will and testament, he effectively broke up his massive estate and commanded that the slaves he owned be freed upon the death of his wife. “He was a man who had discovered that his moral system was wrong. He had helped to create a new world but had allowed into it an infection that he feared would eventually destroy it,” writes Henry Wiencek in “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.”

The speeches this week have largely ignored the history of this city, and its special role as the birthplace of the republic. Independence Hall is here, and the Liberty Bell, and Benjamin Franklin’s grave, of course — they’re all prominent in the guidebooks. You’ll also find the Library Company, formed by Franklin and friends as the first subscription library in the city, and the Union League, the elegant private club formed in 1862 to support the Union in the Civil War.

“We think about this era as being divisive, uncivilized. I take comfort in the fact that it’s been much, much worse,” said John Meko, executive director of the Foundations of the Union League, as he stood in a room with a statue of Lincoln and with the Gettysburg Address inscribed along one wall. “Where’s the donkey come from? It comes from [Andrew] Jackson being called a jackass so many times, he decided to adopt it as a symbol.”

A couple of feet away, Jim Mundy, director of education and programming for the Foundations, was busy showing a convention-goer a ceremonial sword and other historic artifacts.

“Politics hasn’t changed. There were Donald Trumps in the 19th century,” Mundy said. “There isn’t anything in American politics that hasn’t happened before.”

Further Reading:

From Cleveland to Philadelphia, two conventions create tonal whiplash

America really is more divided than ever