E Pluribus Unum: George Washington

Did anyone ever see Washington, the Father of our Country, nude? Nathaniel Hawthorne felt impelled to pose the question and answer it categorically: "It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world." Horatio Weld felt rather strongly about a child's first reference to him. "The first word of infancy should be mother, the second father, the third Washington." Artemus Ward chose carefully from his misspellings and described Washington as "a human angil in a 3 kornered hat and knee britches." None of them suggested that under the britches was a human body.

Perhaps, as some contend, Mom is becoming harder and harder to handle; but America is still a man's land, and George Washington remains our symbolic Father. The millions of tourists who visit his grave at Mount Vernon sense this deeply. They go to revere not a man, but a demigod. In death, as in life, Washington has a niche no other American can occupy. If one man can be said to have knit together the American union, and earned its acclaim richly, his name is surely George Washington.

Though disillusioned by some events and perplexed by others, modern Americans have not discarded their Father. "He, personally, was 90% of the force which made of the American Revolution a successful issue," states William Carlos Williams. "Know the intimate character of Washington himself, and you will know practically all there is to understand about the beginnings of the American Republic." Few would say 90% was too high. Certainly not those who knew the living Washington and may have heard him say he had inherited "inferior endowments from nature." And surely not those who went through the Revolution with him, quite aware that he lost a great many more battles than he won.

Washington was born on the family estate in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1732, and raised in a rural environment. After his father's death in 1743, he was guided largely by his half-brother, Lawrence, who got him a job as surveyor. In 1753 George had his first military experience in a foray against the French and Indians in the Ohio country. At Great Meadows (near present Pittsburgh), he built Fort Necessity, but was forced to retreat when French pressure mounted. After his participation in the unsuccessful attack on Fort Duquesne led by General Braddock ( 1755), he served as commander of the Virginia forces on the western frontier for two years. Experience, not theory, was the basis of his insight and leadership.

When still a youth, Washington's countrymen marked him for greatness. In a 1755 sermon Samuel Davies, later president of Princeton, talked of "that heroic youth, Colonel Washington, whom I cannot but hope providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a manner, for some important service to his country." Like most colonials, Davies had marveled when he heard that during Braddock's rout Washington had had two horses shot from under him and that four bullets had pierced his clothes. From such tales legends grew. Some were so exaggerated that Washington had to write home to deny "a circumstantial acct. of my death and dying speech."

When Washington was chosen to head the American Revolutionary forces, all sorts of stories about him began to make the rounds of the Continental Congress. Had you heard that Washington had offered to recruit a thousand soldiers at his own expense, and march them to Boston? Of course you had. And of course you didn't put any credence in the report that there had been no such offer. For you, like most Americans of your day, were hungry for a living symbol of your revolt, and quick to see one in Washington.

So you joined in the celebrations of his birthday while he was still the harassed commander of a lank, losing army. You may have helped mob a New Jersey printer, William Goddard, when he dared publish Charles Lee's version of his run-in with the idolized General. And you certainly read some of the popular broadsides about Washington, which sold for twopence. You never thought about it, but you were helping to create a national hero.

Charles Lee, who was relegated to the villain's dungeon when he crossed Washington, was among the first to note the rise of the Washington cult. "He has long been in this state of divinity," Lee wrote his sister in the summer of 1782, "but of late the legality of his apotheosis begins to be called in question." Lee was right about the apotheosis, wrong about its legality. Never was an apotheosis so legal in the court of final appeal. The people's judgment was practically unanimous. Overnight Washington became one of the few men in history big enough to fill the vacuum when no symbol existed for a major revolution. His prestige after Cornwallis' surrender was even greater than that of the government of the United States. When he died in 1799, a symbol and a tradition, as well as a human body, was buried at Mount Vernon.

Washington's appeal did not come after time had minimized his bad traits and magnified his good ones. His own generation lionized him. Parson Weems confidently called him "our demigod" in 1800. In the same year a Pennsylvania German farmer wrote Washingtons Ankunft in Elisium, in which Washington strolled around heaven chatting with Brutus and Columbus. Even though he led a successful rebellion against British authority, Englishmen praised him as extravagantly as the most uncritical of his American admirers. Few men have aroused such high regard from those against whom they rebelled.

Did Washington pass over to Valhalla at any particular moment? Probably not; only Hollywood can simplify the historical process to that extent. But if Washington had a finest hour, it came in 1797 when he voluntarily left the Presidency. His conduct in war, as leader of the Revolution, won him fame, but his conduct in peace, as first helmsman of the new Republic, won him immortality. In youth he craved war; in maturity he wisely avoided it. Rather than indulge in the popular practice of twisting the lion's tail, he sanctioned Jay's Treaty with England, which won precious years of peace for the wobbly young democracy.

"I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound," Washington wrote his half brother after a skirmish at Great Meadow in 1753. But the Washington of 1790 saw through the pomp and power of warfare; he would rather be on his farm than be made emperor of the world. When defeated men shun the ways of war, they show reconciliation; when victorious men abjure them, they show greatness.

Washington even resisted the powers of peace, which as king or dictator, he could have enjoyed in the vaguely united states. Like Cincinnatus, he not only wielded authority but relinquished it. Having the key to unlimited power challenged but did not corrupt him. Thomas Jefferson recorded an interesting remark of Washington's after a stormy cabinet session in which Jefferson and Hamilton worked over each other's backs with verbal daggers. Washington said, Jefferson reported, "he had never repented but once then having slipped the moment of resigning his office, and that was every moment since; that by God he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation." Here was a man who knew what Ecclesiastes meant when he talked of vanity and chasing after winds.

Why was Washington immortalized during his lifetime? The answer is complex, but at least four factors contributed. He was capable, aristocratic, commanding; he had the look and manner of greatness. He lived at a time, and participated in events, which aroused the heroic. His incredible patience and tenacity personified the colonies' noble but difficult cause. And he refused to usurp either military or civilian power; when the times that tried men's souls were past, he returned to the land.

The Revolution was America's baptism by fire. Those who saw the licking flames were well aware that souls were being tried. Under Washington's leadership petty jealousies were squelched and England was humbled. Through it all Washington never lost his vision--or aloofness. They never called him George. History, biography, oratory, journalism, poetry, art, and fiction all demonstrate that he is today, as in the past, just what Light Horse Harry Lee said he was in a well-turned metaphor: first in the hearts of his countrymen.

To judge by all the works written about him, one would conclude that Washington was a demigod who came to us flawless, to perform one of God's worthy and inspired projects, then to return to heaven. Paul Svinin, European visitor in 1815, observed that "Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have the images of God's saints." Such adoration is even more amazing when one considers that Washington lived in the Age of Reason, dedicated to a rationalistic view of nature and humanity.

Adulation of Washington has, of course, risen and fallen with the changing times, as is true for any hero; but three massive peaks are clearly discernible. The first came with General Lafayette's visit to America in 1824, which reawakened all the revolutionary glow and reactivated the tongues of veterans who in all ages become more heroic as they are further removed from the battlefield. Lafayette's long and dramatic triumphant tour, which belonged to the poetry of history, evoked a flood of Washington worship. "I cannot write or speak the name of Washington without a contraction and dilation of the heart, if I do it irreverently," confessed John Neal.

The second peak was in 1847-48. America was at war with Mexico, fighting blood was bubbling, and newsstands were hawking Revolutionary thrillers and paper-backed Washington biographies. Coinciding with the war hysteria was the laying of the cornerstone of the capital's Washington Monument in 1848. Catherine Maria Sedgwick admitted his name conjured up a sentiment "resembling the awe of the pious Israelite when he approached the ark of the Lord." The Reverend J. N. Danforth compared Washington with Jesus, and his mother with Mary. The pronoun "Him" was capitalized in many accounts of Washington's life. Only the Protestant ethos saved him from canonization.

Part of this upsurge crystallized into the crusade to "save" Mount Vernon, which had become weedy in the generation after Washington's death. Ann Pamela Cunningham worked hard for this, as did the orator Edward Everett, who delivered his famous Washington oration 129 times between 1856 and 1860, trading his warmed-over words for cold cash. Mount Vernon was saved. It became, and still is, a public shrine. For a while, however, it looked as if Mount Vernon would be on the boundary of two nations instead of in the center of one. In the arguments leading to secession Washington's name was evoked by both sides; Northerners and Southerners were equally sure that a live Washington would have fought with them. When finally the split occurred, the Confederates chose George Washington to appear on their great seal, and a collateral descendant, Robert E. Lee, to lead them.

Washington's bicentennial year, 1932, was the tallest peak of all. Then America was brimming with nostalgia for the Father. The printed report of the Bicentennial Commission alone filled five huge volumes averaging 700 pages each. Over 16,000 celebrations were staged, featuring 4,760,245 separate programs. The man most responsible for all this, Representative Sol Bloom, we shall discuss presently.

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