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Resurrecting George Washington

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A statue of George Washington looks on as a giant US flag hangs on the exterior of the New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street.

When George Washington died in December of 1799, a physician and friend named William Thornton wanted to try everything he could think of to re-animate the body of the Virginian President and General. He proposed to 'thaw' the body in water, then warm it up with blankets, perform a tracheotomy and to give him blood transfusions from some freshly slaughtered unfortunate lamb. Washington, a man of dignity and sternness, would have abhorred the idea of his own zombification. Luckily, his friends prevented the good doctor from attempting to raise the late George Washington from the dead like Lazarus and so Washington remains entombed at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

However, this has not stopped Americans from resurrecting Washington periodically throughout history. His name is often invoked as a model of patriotism, chivalry, judgment and comportment - and with good reason. The man has been continually resurrected to suit the various purposes of politicians (sincere and demagogic), historians and of course parents who wish to teach their small children ethical and moral lessons by using the famous apocryphal stories concerning America's first President ('Brush your teeth... you don't want to end up like George Washington with wooden dentures', 'George Washington never told a lie, and neither should you!'). George Washington has been so often resurrected, and for so many disparate reasons, that his legend seems to encompass all that is right about the country he did so much to form, the United States of America. Though Robert Pinsky once said...

Americans have been suckled by no wolf, sired by no Trojan fleeing Troy; they are not descended from the sun or from the dragon's teeth sown in the earth.
... the collective vision of Washington is as something of a distant and inhuman founder-god - an American Aeneas perhaps.

But if George Washington is seen as distant from the long perspective of history, the men who he regularly spent time with would have described him in the same terms. He did much to make himself into the model of a 'great man'. When he entered a room, he was said to dominate it and command the attention and respect of all those present. Yet those who offered this description would in the same breath mention his aloofness and reserve. It is a measure of the great respect he commanded that he could be the centre of attention in a room without ever so much as saying a word1. Part of this had to do with his usually immaculate appearance. He stood a head above most other men of his time. He dressed impeccably, as befitted a man of dignity. He seemed comfortable in his own skin (if not in his teeth2). He moved gracefully and naturally, and was even said to be quite the charmer behind closed doors. Rarely did his temper flare or austerity collapse, but when it did, it made for the stuff of legends. Stories of him screaming from atop a horse on a battlefield or stomping on his hat in a cabinet meeting are a mainstay of the Washington anecdotal canon. But he was also capable of pettiness, petulance and poor judgment (though not really very often, all things considered). He was, in short, a human of remarkable talents and an often inhuman composure; but a human nevertheless.


Charlie : What are you reading?
Bartlet : Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation by George Washington.
Charlie : The George Washington?
Bartlet : The rules were drawn from an English translation of a French book of maxims. Washington copied them down when he was 14 years old. [reads] 'When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even, without putting one on the other or crossing them. Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half-dressed.' What a tight-assed little priss he must've been.
Charlie : Yes, sir.
Bartlet : Do you think I could take George Washington?
Charlie : Take him at what, sir?
Bartlet : I don't know... a war?
Charlie : Could you have taken George Washington in a war?
Bartlet : Yeah.
Charlie : Well, you'd have the Air Force and he'd have the Minutemen, right?
Bartlet : The Minutemen were good.
Charlie : Still, I think you could probably take him.
Bartlet : Yeah.
-From The West Wing

During the time of George Washington, Virginia was very much agrarian. The fertile ground around the Chesapeake Bay made for large plantations, which substituted for towns in some ways (Virginia was by far the most populous of the American colonies, but had no notable cities). Being a British colony, the plantation owners from around the Chesapeake (which was known as the Tidewater region) had formed a sort of American nobility. The elite Tidewater planter class controlled the affairs of the state government, dominated the social hierarchy and brought in huge amounts of money from their vast tracts of land. It was this society into which Washington came in 1732.

The Washingtons were a fairly old family, having come to Virginia in 1657. In the three generations before George, the Washington males had shown an uncanny knack for dying prematurely. Continuing the trend, George's father Augustine Washington died young in 1743, when George was only 11. On the other hand his mother, a tall woman named Mary Ball Washington, lived to see her son's great accomplishments. But Washington himself never said much about his parents in later years, nor much about his boyhood. Most assume that he was ashamed in some ways of his childhood. He was not considered intelligent enough to attend a college (which would have certainly been the College of William and Mary, had he done so). His family was perfectly respectable and reputable, but they were not quite on the very upper crust of Virginian society. He was also quite awkward and gawky as a young man, with an ungainly frame and unusually large hands and feet. The moralistic stories of Washington repenting after chopping down a cherry tree and such are apocryphal, but that's not to say he wasn't a respectful and proper young man3 - as befitted a growing Virginian gentleman.

Yet even in the Virginia planter class, there were stratifications based on wealth, name and land-holdings. Washington was not a particularly prominent land owner early in his life and he had other interests. While many other boys of his age sought higher education, he turned his attention to the west, where he distinguished himself by serving as an officer for the British (and Americans) in the French and Indian War. During his campaign, he famously erected a horribly vulnerable post dubbed Fort Necessity - which the French captured with ease. What poor planning abilities he displayed in creating Fort Necessity, he made up for with a show of great courage and strength in leading men at the Battle of Monongahela (which, nevertheless, was another fight lost by the British). He learned quickly, and was made the commander of a newly formed 'Virginia Regiment', right around the time that the main theatre of combat shifted away from Virginia. As a consequence, his regiment didn't do much for the rest of the war.

After the war ended, he went back to the agricultural life, but made an important change. He decided to wed a wealthy widow named Martha Custis, and immediately became the proprietor of thousands of acres of Virginia land and scores of slaves. He was never able to have any children with Martha4, but served as a surrogate father for the children from her first marriage. Washington was happy to settle into the leisurely life as a plantation owner. He was continually occupied with his slaves, the renovation of his home at Mount Vernon, new crop rotation techniques and keeping his accounts. His letters about crops from this period can only be rivalled in dullness by his journal, which unfailingly mentioned the weather conditions but nothing about his life. He also served briefly in the Virginia House of Burgesses (a part time job, to be sure).

The Evolution of the Revolution

By the mid-1770s, George Washington had accrued quite a respectable reputation as a leading figure in Virginia. So when the American colonies became increasingly dissatisfied with British rule, Virginia chose Washington as one of its delegates for the Continental Congress. When the Congress met to discuss the various collections of outrages they saw (the Stamp Act, the Intolerable Act, the Boston Massacre, etc) Washington retained his austere disposition and said little. Nevertheless, he was known to be a steady opponent of British coercion and an advocate of an embargo against British goods.

However, when the mood of the Congress swung towards militarism and even perhaps nationalism, the delegates looked to their silent Virginian colleague. In 1775, Washington was selected to lead a prospective American army. He was seen as an important link to Virginia, and his appointment was a possible way to keep the largest state involved in the conflict. He was also one of the very few prominent Americans of the time who actually had some military experience. Some delegates who were jealous of his appointment would later claim he only received the job because he was the tallest person in the room.

George Washington left for war at age 43 in the same regal-looking military uniform he had used to fight alongside the British years before. It would not be until he was 51 that he would be able to return home from the war (looking much older and more weary). His first major battle was in that bastion of American patriotism, Boston. After some brilliant manoeuvering at Dorchester Heights involving the capture and transport of artillery from a fort in upstate New York, the Americans captured Boston and had their first real victory. It was followed by a less impressive rout of Washington's troops defending New York City at Brooklyn Heights. The Revolutionary War could very well have ended there had the British pressed their advantage, but Washington and his troops successfully retreated to Manhattan and then northwards into Harlem (where they repulsed another British attack). It was after the catastrophe in New York that Washington learned an important lesson. The British held the advantage in large-scale, open conflicts. However, the Americans held one important advantage - they had time on their side. The British were forced to bear the expensive burden of supplying their troops across the Atlantic, which made the war costlier with each week. Washington resolved to constantly retreat in order to stretch the war out. This ran against Washington's instincts and irritated him, but it was a very shrewd decision. A commander who resolved to attack the British head-on would almost certainly have lost the war for the Americans.

Near the end of 1776, Washington led his troops across the Delaware River in a daring raid at Trenton. Capitalising on his success, he won another victory at Princeton. For many years afterwards, these would be his only victories of note. Other American commanders became heroes, but Washington and his troops were forced to continually retreat and suffer. Their winters at Valley Forge and Morristown were famously uncomfortable. The morale of his troops and officers rapidly fluctuated according to circumstances. At one point, near the end of the war, he faced a mutiny from his officers who were unpaid and undersupplied. While reading a letter to them, he halted and reached for his reading glasses (which most of the officers had never seen him wear). He dramatically asked their pardon, saying 'Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.' The rebellious officers were sufficiently chastened and moved by his apparent sacrifice that they continued to serve under him.

In seeking supplies for his troops, Washington saw firsthand the inadequacies of a weak central government. He was constantly undersupplied and underfunded, but the Continental Congress was essentially powerless to help him. He was no political scientist, but it's not hard to see how he could become a proponent of a strong central government in postwar America. It was not until 1781 that circumstances allowed Washington, and the main body of the Continental Army, to see another great victory. In Yorktown, Virginia, the Americans and French surrounded the British forces under General Cornwallis and forced a surrender. This essentially made victory and independence for Americans inevitable (the details were hammered out in the Treaty of Paris in 1783) - and Washington hoped he would be allowed to go home and retire.

Conventional Wisdom

His friends and admirers, however, had no intention of allowing Washington to rest for too long. He was a hero to all of America - the very symbol of the new Republic's fresh triumph. He was therefore cajoled, persuaded and even bamboozled into heading the Virginia delegation to a convention in Philadelphia regarding a revision of the current American system of national government - the Articles of Confederation. Once in Philadelphia, he was chosen by acclamation to serve as the President of the Convention. In fact, his very attendance to the convention in Philadelphia did much to legitimise the event and bring in some of the best minds of America to participate. His signature on the final product of the Convention, which was to become the US Constitution, had the same legitimising effect.

There may have been something that troubled Washington about the document, though. Sure, it had a stronger central government, which he must have recognised as necessary for assuring America's strength. Sure, it had been shaped by his confidant and friend James Madison - so it was on a solid intellectual footing. The trouble was in Article II, which explains the role of the Executive Branch of government, including one job of the Presidency of the United States. He would have known that his retirement would have to wait. In fact, Washington couldn't very well decline to be named the first President, because the job was literally created with him in mind. The framers of the Constitution may have been uncomfortable vesting quite so much power in a single man if they had not been so thoroughly convinced of Washington's superior judgment and integrity.

The Decider

In 1788, Washington was elected unanimously by the newly created electoral college, which was forced to hold a second ballot to come up with a runner-up to serve as Vice President (they ended up choosing John Adams). Washington began by appointing three intelligent and capable men to important roles in his administration. His former aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton was made Treasury Secretary, fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State and the artillery hero of Dorchester Heights, Henry Knox, was made Secretary of War. His cabinet selections would play an important role in his Presidency. In fact, every appointment had some sort of impact in the small pond of the early American Executive branch. It was said that George Washington employed more people on his plantation at Mount Vernon than he did in the Executive branch of the US government.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were both incredibly brilliant, forceful men, who happened to have opposing views on just about everything. It was really from the internal conflicts in Washington's cabinet between these two men that the first political parties in America came from - Jefferson leading the Republicans, and Hamilton leading the Federalists. Washington did not like the whole notion of political parties and did his best to stay above the fray. Yet he was ideologically disposed towards the Federalist view of the world and tended to side with Hamilton on most issues (which only served to alienate Jefferson and the Republicans; in the end they distanced themselves from the Washington administration).

The issues themselves were numerous and complicated. Yet Washington displayed an uncanny ability to make good decisions, or at least the decisions which history has come to favour. He fought for the rights of native Americans. He backed Hamilton's schemes to put America on firm financial footing. He brutally put down the 'Whiskey Rebellion' of 1794. He backed the controversial Jay Treaty, which made Britain the primary partner of America in commerce. And, perhaps most importantly, he relinquished power after eight years.


Having been re-elected in 1792, Washington voluntarily left office at the conclusion of his second four-year term. Some have interpreted this as a display of altruistic selflessness, but in fact Washington did not much enjoy his time in the Presidency. He could have been re-elected for a third term, but he judged that his service to his country had been sufficient, and retired to Mount Vernon5. Before doing so, he worked with Hamilton to draft a document bidding farewell to the Presidency, and in effect, to the American people. The famous 'Farewell Address' has been heavily scrutinised by historians, though by appearances not by the future Americans which it had hoped to influence. The document (printed in newspapers, rather than given as a speech) warned Americans against the evils of partisan politics, and argues against long-term alliances with other nations.

Had Washington stood for a third term, it is unlikely he would have lived through it. Very much a man of the 18th century, he died on 14 December, 1799 - leaving America in the hands of a new generation of leadership. His death also emancipated the slaves he owned by the terms of his will. His last words, 'Tis well seem to indicate that he was pretty happy with the way things turned out. All great men have to die (the beliefs of Dr Thornton notwithstanding) but Washington left behind quite a lot. The capital of America, which he had a large role in developing, came to be known as 'Washington'. It would eventually see a giant white obelisk erected in his honour, called the Washington Monument. Across the continent, the 42nd state in the American union (now grown beyond his capacity to imagine) was named 'Washington'. Countless universities, towns, streets, counties, high schools and large boats now bear his name. To borrow a phrase from President Reagan, used in a farewell address of his own, two centuries after the Revolutionary era... all in all, not bad, not bad at all.

1He was something of a prisoner of this respect, in later years. After one stressful day, Washington sat down to watch a group of children play. He was enjoying himself, basking in their innocence and fun, until the children noticed his presence and clammed up. He stormed off, angrily.2Washington's poor teeth are the stuff of legends. While there is no evidence to suggest that he ever had wooden teeth, it is known that he had one set of dentures made from hippopotamus bone, which apparently turned black because of the Port wine he drank.3As evidenced by his copying down 110 repressive rules from a book called The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation as a young man. This reproduction remains one of the few surviving papers from his childhood.4Some take this as evidence that they had a distant relationship. The fact that whatever correspondence the two had was burned by Martha makes it difficult to disprove this. Others believe Washington was impotent. His lack of an heir eventually had one benefit - no one could claim he had monarchical ambitions. For Washington, being known as 'Father of His Country' ended up being quite enough.5In limiting himself to two terms, he established a precedent for Presidents to serve no more than eight years, which remained unbroken until 1940, and then codified with the 22nd amendment in 1951.

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