When the dignified George Washington died 200 years ago (Dec. 14, 1799), he became forever the lonely and immutable monument of American glory. In the breathless oratory of countless eulogies he was the "godlike Washington."
"George Washington, American Symbol," an exhibition of more than 150 paintings, prints, sculptures, decorative objects and memorabilia is on view at the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Mass., through Feb. 27, 2000. The exhibition, held in observance of the 200th anniversary of his death, traces the evolution of Washington's image from the 18th century to the present.
In portraiture and sculpture Washington never smiled. Jean Antione Houdon's classic bust of a virile hero froze the features in an austere mold, while in Gilbert Stuart's magisterial Athenaeum portrait Washington is stolid, serious and unsmiling, intensely self-conscious of his role as hero-president.
Even in his lifetime Washington's contemporaries vied in their tributes; he was seen as a symbol of national unity; he was made into a graven image for the nation to worship. His great height, noble carriage, solemn visage, impenetrable dignity, steely reserve and instinct for command fixed in the public mind his reputation as Father of the Country.
Washington's charismatic presence impressed everybody. Jefferson said of him: "His person was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age." The enterprising Parson Weems imposed his apocryphal Washington on the nation -- with the cherry tree, the prayer at Valley forge, the grinding ice in the Delaware, the second Cincinnatus returned to the plow and the rest -- how is one to separate the man from the myth?
The soaring obelisk that we call the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is 555 feet high -- higher than St. Peter's in Rome, much higher than the Pyramids. When Washington died, the new federal capital had already been named in his honor. Washington is not easy to understand -- to discern the actual man behind the huge, impersonal, ever-growing legend.
By the early decades of the 19th century he had already become statuesque and impenetrable. Through the years there have been periodic efforts to bring him down to earth, to expose his foibles, to debunk his fame, but he has remained massively monumental. He seems to come from another time and another place -- from another world. And that is the whole point about him: he does come from another world. He belonged to the pre-democratic and pre-egalitarian world of the 18th century, to a world we have lost.
In many respects Washington was an unlikely hero. Those who knew him well and talked with him were often disappointed. He never seemed to have much to say. He was most certainly not what one today would call an intellectual. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was unusually generous in his estimate of his friends, said that Washington had "neither copiousness of ideas nor fluency of words." Although he may not have been an intellectual, he was a man of affairs. He knew how to run his Mount Vernon plantation and make it pay.
But being a man of affairs and running a plantation or even the federal government efficiently were not what made him a world-renowned hero. Neither were his military exploits. Washington was not a traditional military hero. He did not resemble Alexander, Caesar or Marlborough; his military achievements were nothing compared with those that Napoleon would soon have. Washington had no smashing, stunning victories; he was not a military genius; military glory was not the source of his reputation.
The real source of Washington's greatness lay in his moral character -- an unflinching belief in principles and a stern devotion to virtue. Washington had the good manners, dignified behavior and supreme self-confidence of the well-bred, class-conscious, aristocratic gentry of Virginia. Those classical Roman virtues of gravitas, pietas, simplicitas, integritas, and gloria fortified his sense of leadership, no matter how self-sacrificing, and sustained his feeling of responsibility, no matter how onerous.
Washington was a man of virtue, but this virtue was not given to him by nature. He had to work for it, to cultivate it; Washington was a self-made hero, and this impressed an 18th-century enlightened world that put great stock in men controlling both their passions and their destinies. Washington possessed a self-cultivated nobility, as his youthful copying of 110 maxims of civility from a courtesy book indicates. He was obsessed with behaving in a proper and dignified manner. His most virtuous act, the one that made him famous, was his resignation in December 1783 as commander-in-chief of the American forces. This act, together with his June 1783 circular letter to the states in which he promised to retire forever from public life, was his legacy to his countrymen. No American leader has ever left a more important legacy.
Surely no one else has been so thoroughly venerated, and so completely frozen into legend as George Washington. Between 1800 and 1860 alone, American writers produced at least four hundred books, essays and articles on Washington's life. During this time, Washington's image was not that of a mere celebrity: it was sacred. The pronoun "Him" was capitalized in many biographies, and the comparison with Jesus, which first appeared in the eulogies, was pushed further than ever. Writers noted that the mothers of both men were named Mary and that the births of both were the only two celebrated nationally. The memory of Washington is honored by the places named for him: the one state, eight streams, nine colleges and universities, ten lakes, seven mountains, thirty-three counties and one hundred and twenty-one cities and towns. During the Civil War, Mount Vernon was declared neutral territory, as both sides, North and South, claimed Washington as a symbol of their cause. In the North, Washington stood for union; in the South, he stood for resistance to tyranny.
Washington is beyond question one of the greatest men in history, one of the noblest men who ever lived. He is a towering figure in the establishment of the United States and he did more than any other man to create and preserve the Republic. Here was a man whose very strength resided in his austere sobriety, who in his own person demonstrated this soundness of America. He was a good man, not a demigod; he was an honest administrator, not a brilliant statesman; he was a military man, but never a militarist. He was touchingly proud of America, proud that it was his country that was given the historic chance of becoming a model of religious as well as political freedom. In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, whose service he once attended, he stressed that in America freedom of religious worship was one of the "inherent natural rights," where government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Washington was an exceptional man; with reason he became so merged with America that his is the most prominent name in the land.