For George Washington, the Constitution Was a Cheat Sheet

PHOTO: George Washingtons copy of Acts of the first CongressPlayAlex Brandon/AP Photo
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In his first year as the first president, George Washington studied the United States' brand-new Constitution and decided he'd better take some notes.

So he read the parts that applied to him — like controlling the Army and the Navy, and having the power to write treaties. And next to those passages he drew, in pencil, elegant brackets pointing toward the margins. Then he wrote "President" in calligraphic cursive.

That copy of the Constitution, with a few scattered notes in the early pages and Washington's John Hancock near the front, was on display today in the city named after our first president, at a hotel named after our third. It will be auctioned in New York on June 22 and is expected to fetch up to $3 million.

The hardcover, personalized copy from 1789 has a coating of irony on the inside cover. The book plate, as it's called — a colorful smattering of ornate designs before the first page — was ordered by Washington from England, the very country from which the United States had recently declared its independence. Even the pages — delicately preserved, crisp and thick — might have come from across the pond, though it's unclear, according to Chris Coover, a senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Christie's, the auction house putting Washington's document on the block.

"He annotated very few books," Coover said. "He had a large library, much of which does survive, and very, very few have any kind of marginal notations at all. It just was a habit that he never picked up — which kind of emphasizes the fact that this is a particularly important example where he took the time to annotate, however sparsely and in very condensed form, all the duties of the president."

"He has one of the most beautiful hands you'll find from that period," Coover continued. "He took great care with his penmanship, always. Never scribbled, never scrawled, and that's all the more remarkable considering he wrote hundreds of thousands of letters. He was a man who spent a great deal of time answering letters. When he was in New York as president, he was writing back to Mount Vernon, to his overseer, directing what to do, what to plant, when to harvest. Some of those letters are 26 to 28 pages long."

In 223 years, Washington's Constitution has changed hands a few times, though historians don't know all of its owners. It was auctioned once before, in Philadelphia in 1876, and signed by one of Washington's descendants; William Randolph Hearst owned it as well. It now belongs to the estate of H. Richard Dietrich Jr., a philanthropist who collected colonial art until his death in 2007.

On June 22, it will have a new owner. Francis Wahlgren, one of the auctioneers at Christie's, suspects that it will be sold to another private collector or wealthy person who wants to lay claim to a piece of history. But there's always a chance that a surprise winner will emerge at the auction.

The auction itself won't be moderated like a horse race, as some auctions are popularly perceived, but rather in a more even-paced manner that allows bids to be placed by all sorts of people — including paddle holders in the seats, and anonymous players on phone lines, on the Web, and in private booths out of sight.

The spectacle is open to the public, and anyone can make a play for the Constitution, provided that a bank check confirms the bidder can afford to pay within the expected range. About 100 to 150 people are expected.

If you're one of the lucky few who can pay for the rare document, look out for bully bidders and sleepers. Wahlgren said some aggressive auction-goers will set a rough tone early on by announcing a high bid right off the bat, putting competitors off guard. Others, he said, wait until the very end, when the bidding usually boils down to two people, before jumping in with a surprise offer.

"Sometimes the bidding can be fast once there's a real, you know, battle going on," Wahlgren said.

"The higher it goes," he added, "the more exciting it gets."