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Do you have George Washington’s wine cooler? November 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , , ,

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a good old-fashioned Early American mystery. I first became aware of it in a Wall Street Journal article, “Washington Chilled Here: A Wine Cooler’s Tale” (check it out at www.wsj.com).

The article tells a very sad tale, involving three of our favorite Founding Fathers, Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris. Apparently Washington commissioned Morris in 1789 to have four wine coolers made by a British silversmith to his exacting specifications. To quote the article:

“Specifying the design of a wine cooler for his claret and port, the founding father [Washington] said the bottles had to sit upright rather than at angles, the neck of the decanters had to rise above the cooler rim and there had to be room at the bottom of the bowl so the bottles would sit above the ice.”

Iced port. Now there’s a thought. But I digress.

The point is that Washington had one cooler lengthily engraved to present to his favorite co-Founder, Alexander Hamilton. Unlike most men of his time, including many of the Founders, who were strong States’ Rights men and had joined together merely to throw off the yoke of Britain, Hamilton was a visionary genius. He envisioned the America of today, with a strong central government, a sound treasury, and a standing army, a country that would become a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. And his vision fired Washington’s imagination.

The Father of our Country embraced the Federal view with a passion, and did everything in his power to help Hamilton make it a reality, defying other Founders like Jefferson, Adams and Madison, and outraging States-Righters like Patrick Henry and Sam Adams. If justice were served, the real Father of our Country would be recognized as Hamilton, its creator and architect, not Washington, its figurehead.

The two men shared a warm personal relationship as well. Hamilton, 20 years younger and an orphan, looked to Washington as a father figure, and Washington returned his affection. He recognized Hamilton’s brilliance when Hamilton was one of his aides-de-camp in the Revolution, and the two remained fast friends for the rest of their lives.

I realize that this hardly sounds like a sad story. But it is. First, both men died prematurely, Washington most likely from the bleeding and purging inflicted by his doctors after he caught a bad cold at Mount Vernon, and Hamilton at the business end of Aaron Burr’s dueling pistol. But what makes this story particularly sad is that Washington’s gift, which has remained and been cherished in the Hamilton family ever since, has now been consigned to the auction block by the ironically named Alexander Hamilton Spaulding.

“Once Mr. Spaulding’s mother moved to a retirement community, the item became too difficult to keep,” the article explains. So, now that mom’s no longer there to safeguard the family treasure, “Sandy” is looking to strike it rich by auctioning it off. Shame on him, unworthy of his ancestry, unworthy of his name! 

If Mr. Spaulding and his family no longer want the Washington/Hamilton wine cooler, surely it belongs to the nation, and should be donated to a museum where all Americans could see this treasure of American history. He could donate it to Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, or to the Smithsonian or Colonial Williamsburg or the Library of Congress or the National Archives or Winterthur or any museum that showcased early American history. He could make it a national treasure rather than selling it to the highest bidder. It’s a slap in the face to both Washington and Hamilton that he isn’t doing it. How sad that things have come to this!

Okay, we’ve covered the sad part. Let’s move on to the mystery. As noted, Washington commissioned four of these wine coolers. The Hamilton family has theirs, and two are at Mount Vernon. Apparently no one knows what became of the fourth wine cooler, and there lies the mystery. Washington must have also commissioned it as a presentation gift to someone, since he didn’t keep it. Perhaps he presented it to Gouverneur Morris, who, after all, had been put to the trouble of having the coolers made. Perhaps he’d had it made for our favorite Founding Father, the great Benjamin Franklin. Or for Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette or heaven knows who.

Whatever the case, Washington was so revered, not just in his lifetime but through the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, that it’s improbable in the extreme that someone would have simply taken a personal, engraved gift from him and melted it down for scrap. (Especially since it was plate rather than sterling silver, so its value melted down would have been nil.)

But it is possible that someone inherited the wine cooler along with numerous items from a great-aunt’s estate and had no idea what it was. It is possible that someone was facing financial problems and decided to sell it off. It is possible that, as I write, it is sitting in an attic somewhere with a bunch of other family mementoes, or sitting in some flea market or antiques shop waiting to be rediscovered.

Is it in your attic? Will you, perhaps, stumble upon it at your local antiques mall? I suggest that you keep your eyes peeled. And, if you do happen to have it or find it, that you do the noble thing and donate it to our nation. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton would be proud.


                               Richard Saunders



1. William Scudder - November 27, 2011

Curious that they chilled their claret and port back in the day. I’d have a server flogged today if they did it. For the record, I checked the attic, no cooler… just squirrels.

Ha! So sorry, William! Our friend Ben is related to Martha Custis Washington, but sadly failed to find a Washington wine cooler in his attic, either. But mercifully, none of us found squirrels, bats, raccoons, opossums, or etc., either, so perhaps things could be worse…

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