George Washington, Mason Weems, John Marshall, Jared Sparks, Gilbert Stuart

Washington-worship, be it noted, has not been limited to America. It has jumped boundaries and oceans with ease. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a week of national mourning when Washington died. Alfieri and Botta in Italy, Byron and Thackeray in England, and Kosciuszko in Poland knelt from afar, looking toward the Washington shrine. Translations of the Farewell Address flooded South America and Washington's picture was displayed beside Simon Bolivar's frequently. The modest squire of Mount Vernon had become a world hero. In time, revolutions in far away places paid him homage. The well-laid foundations of the Washington legend today support a structure international in design and craftsmanship.

Who were the chief architects of this structure? Parson Mason Weems, John Marshall, Jared Sparks, Gilbert Stuart, Jean Antoine Houdon, and Sol Bloom. Without their words, pigment, stone, and strategy Washington's reputation would have been different from what it now is. The name of Weems heads the list. The nineteenth son of a Scotch immigrant, he never lost his hungry look; what he lacked in veracity he made up in daring. Minister, bookseller, fiddler, sentimentalist, keeper of the public pulse, Weems emerged in literature as the poor man's Plutarch. He helped create, as Stewart Holbrook reminds us, a mythical Wash. ington, "fantastically bloodless and good, who in spite of much corrective writing largely endures to this day. That is the way it is with folklore, and history good or bad can do little but dent it here and there, and gnaw away at the edges." 3

Whatever his shortcomings, Parson Weems was an ingenious writer and clever publicist. Best known for his life of Washington, he also did biographies of Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, and Francis Marion. Studying great men made his "bosom heave with emotions unutterable, while the tear of delicious admiration swelled in my eyes." When he got to Washington, the tears became a torrent. His temperament and experience were highly susceptible. He took naturally to praising famous men fervently in his sermons and stump speeches. While he probably had met the General and had been a collector of Washington items, this hardly justified his conferring upon himself the rectorship of Mount Vernon Parish, particularly since there was none of that name. He just was not the type of man to be bound by the tyranny of facts, even when they were covered with clerical garb.

When Washington died suddenly in 1799, hundreds of sketches and sermons came from the presses. The one that most clearly set the future pattern of eulogy was Weems' History of the Life, Death, Virtues, and Exploits of General Washington, published in 1800. It was seldom a hard book to come by. Responsive to the law of supply and demand, Weems revised and fattened his work frequently; the fifth edition issued in 1806 had 250 pages. Sales continued strong long after Weems passed to the land of no revisions. In 1921 the seventy-ninth successful edition appeared.

Anticipating Horatio Alger, Weems made the Washington saga a formalized success story. "Here was a proper rise for you,"
he gloated when Washington snared the rich widow Custis. In the fifth edition he introduced the cherry tree story (the most persistent single legend in American history), the cabbage story, and the wild colt story. Granting that many of his tales were concocted, one feels that scientific historians have been unduly severe to this mixer of mythology, musket-balls, and the backwoods. Shame on Allan Nevins for saying, as he does in the Encyclopedia of Social Science, that Weems "long exercised a deplorable influence upon popular history."

Weems worked in the super-historical realm. There were and are two Washingtons. Weems concerned himself with the invented one. Of course his Washington was very different from the one born and reared in Virginia; he was bound to be. Americans of yesteryear who read Weems weren't concerned with the accuracy of the portrait. They read with their hearts. Many cried when they came to the account of Washington's death:

"Swift on angel's wings the brightening Saint ascended; while voices more than human were warbling through the happy region and hymning the great procession towards the gates of heaven. His glorious coming was seen from afar off; and myriads of mighty angels hastened forth with golden harps, to welcome the honoured stranger."

Let those who question such zeal bow their heads in silence.

No attempt at sublety lurks in Weem's words. His essential achievement can be stated in three words. He got across. He made intelligible the type of hero young America craved, and he had a virtue thoroughgoing historians lacked--he was readable; and the common man appreciated this. So when Weems died they made up legends about him, just as he had done about Washington. Tall tales concerning his life are still going the rounds in the South.

Chief Justice John Marshall and historian Jared Sparks turned the flesh and blood Washington into marble. The great jurist did not start out with this end in view. In the winter of 1800 Bushrod Washington, nephew and literary executor of the General, asked the judge to do an official biography. Marshall, then heavily in debt, was delighted. Four or five volumes properly sold, he calculated, should bring in $50,000. Besides, had he not served with Washington throughout the Revolution? Was he not a fellow Virginian and patrician, keenly appreciative of Washington's heritage?

An enormous amount of material (it now comprises thirty printed volumes) was made available to the Justice. The mass of paper did not digest easily, but Marshall set doggedly to work and wrote two volumes by 1804. In the first one, which opened with John Cabot's voyage and ended with the French and Indian War, Washington's name appeared only twice; volume two managed to reach the battle of Trenton. Volume three dragged through 1779, and four barely managed to get Washington back home after the war. The fifth and best volume covered the presidential years and Federalist politics. John Adams described the finished product as a mausoleum 100 feet square at the base and 200 feet high. The demigod Washington now had a place to rest in peace. Parson Weems, who probably never read all of Marshall's volumes, thought of an apt descriptive title. He called them the Washingtoniad.

The work of Jared Sparks raises fundamental questions. How much should historic truth be doctored to encourage heroic legend? Where does obligation to truth stop and poetic license begin? Should we attribute to great men what they actually said or did, or what they should have said and done? How deep should the editor's pencil dig? Jared Sparks is the Pontius Pilate of American historians.

Raised on a small Connecticut farm, Sparks ( 1789-1866) soon displayed a brilliance that eventually made him president of Harvard and a Washington scholar almost literally beyond compare. He read Virgil at the rate of a hundred lines a day after less than eight weeks' schooling. When Harvard's President Kirkland reviewed his college record he concluded, " Sparks is not only a man, but a man and a half." After a try at the ministry, Jared worked on the North American Review. There he developed a concern for history and documents that affected the rest of his life. He became our first highly efficient collector and editor of documents. The face of Washington he moulded into a death mask of perfection.

After years of historical writing, Sparks secured permission to remove the Washington papers from Mount Vernon to Boston, where he could study them at leisure. "I hear you are the richest, the busiest, and the happiest man in New England, perhaps the world," Miss A. G. Storrow, a friend, wrote him. No one could have been more ecstatic about Washington's papers than he; eventually he produced twelve volumes from them.

This earnest New Englander thought of himself as a portrait painter in words and a moralist in interpretation. History-as-it-is did not interest him nearly so much as history-as-it-ought-to-havebeen. "He thought," John Bassett tells us, "that a sacred halo surrounded the life of a great man, which profane hands should not break lest ordinary men should lose their proper reverence for authority, and for the noble ideals which were embraced in the higher specimens of the race. He could not make up his mind to paint Washington with small faults, and so altered his language."

With his assistant Samuel A. Eliot, Sparks made many changes and deletions in the Washington manuscripts. He altered, for example, "Old Put" to General Putnam, and deleted comments on certain New England officers whom Washington thought were "nearly of the same kidney" as cowardly privates. The English historian Lord Mahon was taken aback. "I am bound to think Mr. Sparks has printed no part of the correspondence precisely as Washington wrote it; but he has greatly altered, and as he thinks corrected and embellished it," he noted with polite restraint.

The "Sparks Controversy" was on. The details need not concern us. Nor need we debate whether Sparks was justified in making alterations. What matters here is what he did to the Washington image. Certainly he crystallized the priggish Washington that Parson Weems and Chief Justice Marshall had already begun to form. The Washington Sparks bequeathed to the nineteenth century was aptly described by a twentieth century historian: "He had no vices; he had no temper; he was completely unselfish. Is it any wonder that he became so strongly entrenched in the American mind that modern history and biography are condemned --generally unheard--when they present their views of the man as he really was?"

In Four in America the cryptic Gertrude Stein summed up the incredible situation in a line. "She is very sleepy, George Washington."

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