Revolutionary War Historical Article
Finding the Real George Washington
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the April 1996 Edition of the Valley Compatriot Newsletter. It is the transcript of a speech to the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the SAR on February 17th, 1996 by Donald N. Moran.
Who was the real George Washington? Why do our constant encounters with his memory, the stories about him, monuments to him, appear to be more myth than reality?
Douglas Southall Freeman, foremost of the George Washington biographers, noted in the introduction to his monumental seven volume work, The Life of George Washington - "the transformation of the quiet Virginia planter into the revered continental commander is beyond explanation" Freeman was right - - no combination of documents can account for Washington's rise to fame.
Early biographers of George Washington, namely, Washington Irving, Jared Sparks, James Paulding, all wrote multiple volumes on Washington life, but they were totally reverent. Anything that had the slightest chance of being misinterpreted to be a negative was totally omitted.
After the Civil War, we as a people had changed. We became more realistic, and after that horrible conflict more self-examining. Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson, Paul L. Ford, tried to write a more human biography of Washington, but they were relatively unsuccessful -- Washington still emerges bigger than life. John C. FitzPatrick in the 1930's and 1940's, Douglas Freeman in the 1950's, Dr. James Flexner in the 1970's, all produced magnificent biographies of Washington. They infrequently alluded to his human qualities, but could not capture the man. They deepened our knowledge of his life - but his position as a national icon remains untarnished. In recent years, revisionists such as Barry Schartz, attempted to rewrite Washington's biography, but even with the unscrupulous writing techniques, the revisionist efforts were transparent. Washington 's greatness, his fame, shown through. Let's examine why.
Like today, the 18th century man was a product of his times. The grandparents of the political leadership of America during the Revolution could remember the horrors of Cromwell's rise to power and his reign of terror. The time since the English Civil War was the same as our time compared to the American Civil War. In our youth, the Civil War was a recent memory, not yet history. As a consequence, they feared men who were too ambitious. Washington certainly did not appear a threat to them. His reluctance to accept command, his campaign against the appointment, his acceptance speech, when appointed Commander-in-Chief, in which he stated "Though I am truly sensible of the high honor done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust. But lest some unlucky event should happen, unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered, by every gentlemen in this room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with. " He went on to offer to serve without compensation. This speech belayed many fears. His humility assured Congress that he would seek their counsel, hence they could control him.
Yet, the American people still needed a tangible leader. The people were accustomed to the King being the head of government. Everything was done in the King's name, not Parliament’s. The people held with the tradition of honoring the King so strongly that the progress of the War was said to have been against Parliament, not the King. We have numerous examples where Washington and his staff were still offering toasts to the King! In fact, during the final debates on the revision of the Declaration of Independence, the delegates were rejecting every negative word regarding the English people, the Parliament and King George. The final debate was over the phrase calling George III a Tyrant – John Adams rose and addressed the Congress, simply stating: "Gentlemen, we are at war with England, we must insult someone!"
Thomas Paine and others started to criticize the King. Rather than address him with the usual reverence, they styled him, "George the Fool", "George the monster in human form". Washington's first name was George, the same as the King’s - it is not a great leap of imagination to understand the association between the two. The public's adoration of the King, from whom they were rebelling, was simply transferred to Washington.
Another important factor was Religion. Most of the news heard by the common people came from the pulpit. The clergy, divided as was everyone, either condemned the rebellion or praised it. Those that praised it naturally turned to the Bible for a parallel. They found one in the Old Testament - the Exodus. So they preached that story to draw comparatives to our Revolutionary cause. The exodus had a great leader - Moses. The Revolution had a great leader - Washington. The Rev. Richard Snowden compared the mist that allowed Washington and his Army to escape after the Battle of Brooklyn, to the cloud of Moses. The Rev. Jonathan Sewall in a well publicized sermon stated that "Washington was superior to Moses, since Washington only lost his temper once at Monmouth and Moses was provoked to act with rashness at Mount Sinai's base and once to speak unadvisedly at the rock of Oreb." The clergy preached that the 13 American Colonies and the 12 tribes of Israel had much in common.
During the entire War, Washington never once disobeyed Congress. He fought with them, but never disobeyed. Congress was perfectly willing to let the people adore him, although there exist many documents expressing some fear of his popularity. Some Americans offered to crown him King of America, again a natural course of 18th century events, and Washington replied "Never, we are finished with Kings in this Country". His popularity rose still higher.
Photograph of Bust of Washington and General Lafayette's Plaque Concerning It, Both Located in the Old North Church of Boston
As soon as the War was over, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon. That resignation elevated him to one step below a god in the eyes of most Americans. He had it all, he could have become dictator, king, emperor, asked any reward, any lands, and yet he simply returned to his farm.
For six quiet years he remained content at Mount Vernon. He kept in touch with the political scene, responded to requests for advice, but remained in the background. The Country recovered from the ravages of the War. The economy improved. Things were pretty good. The Country needed someone to thank, naturally that was Washington, another laurel for his crown, and one he had precious little to do with, but nevertheless, he received the credit. There was still no one person in charge of the Country. It was a collection of thirteen colonies, even if united.
When the Constitutional Convention was convened in 1787, they pulled Washington out of retirement to preside over it. I doubt that there was another man on the Continent that could have controlled that body of men. They were the best minds in America and many with egos to match, yet, one man, saying very few words, managed to accomplish the impossible. His reputation preceded him. He didn't have to say anything. During a heated debate he would rise - extend his hands, palms down and motion everyone back to their seats by gesture alone!
When he became our first President, the population finally had a leader a single individual they could follow. This was something they had lacked for a long time. The biggest celebration in the Country had been the King's Birthday. It was more or less replaced with the Independence Day celebration, but after Washington’s election, it was his birthday that became the biggest National holiday!
John Adams, who privately wrote of his envy of Washington's fame, and understandably, his personal hurt at the downplaying of his own substantial contributions to the Revolutionary War cause. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, he wrote about the "Myth" of Washington, stating his Countrymen had not been content to applaud him as a mere man but appeared compelled to make him into a God. "I love and revere the man, but it is his humanity only that I admire. In his divinity I never believed!"
Washington always possessed a sense of history. He had written several times during the war "What will history say of us if we lose" or "history will thank us". During his presidency, he was fully aware that everything he did set a precedent. That mind set governed much of his action. He avoided as many negative situations as he could and expanded on the positive ones. Even the manner in which he wished to be addressed: "Mr. President" was novel and greatly enhanced his popular image. Members of his cabinet, particularly Hamilton and Jefferson, frequently came under heavy fire, but little of the political flack stuck to Washington. His presence was a commanding as ever. During his presidency, while the capitol was in Philadelphia, an anti-government riot broke out. Several hundred decided to attack the President's home. Washington simply stepped out on the front stoop and glared at them. He said not a word. They disbanded.
Even after he left office, he still commanded great respect. When war with France looked unavoidable, President Adams appointed the aging George Washington to Lieutenant General, Commander-in-Chief of the American Armies. The French backed down!
He was a man, and had to be flawed like any man but those flaws were so repressed, always under control, that they simply were not seen. Is it any wonder that the people of his own era held him up as an example to their children - - try to be like General George Washington!
His reputation was not limited to the United States. He was greatly respected throughout Europe. When George III learned of his death, he ordered a period of National Mourning for a full week. He also ordered a statue erected in Trafalgar Square. When the American Ambassador to England learned of this, he notified the crown that General Washington had publicly expressed a desire to never set foot on English soil. The King modified his plans. He had three tons of Virginia soil imported, and erected the statue on it, thereby honoring General Washington's wishes. The statue stands today, in front of the National Gallery, facing the monument to Lord Nelson, and surrounded with statues to some of England's greatest heroes.
This legacy continued to grow after his death. When Colorado sought statehood, they choose the name of Jefferson, to honor President Thomas Jefferson who had purchased the Louisiana territory which contained Colorado. Congress said "No". "No state shall be named after a President until one is named for George Washington".
When Washington Territory sought statehood, they seriously considered Columbia as their state name, but opted for Washington to expedite their petition. Their application was approved in record time!
When the revisionists decided to replace George Washington and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays with President's day, they were successful in the conversion of the legal holiday but not the popular holiday. The American people still keep Washington's and Lincoln's Birthday.
We now know that Washington's great reputation was a true reflection of the man and his influence on his times and not myth.
If the time in which George Washington had lived was not so monumental to all of mankind, historians would have dubbed it "The Washington Era".
Quotes About Washington
President John Adams (1797-1801): "for his fellow citizens, if their prayers could have been answered, he would have been immortal."
Chief Justice John Marshall (1801-1835): "Our Washington is no more! The hero, the patriot and the sage of America, the man on whom, in times of danger every eye turned, and all hopes were placed, lives now only in his great actions, and in the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people."
Virginia Congressman, General Richard Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee: "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life."
United States Senate: "Ancients and modem names are diminished before him. Let his countrymen consecrate the memory of the heroic George Washington, the patriotic statesman and virtuous sage. Let them teach their children never to forget that the fruits of his labors and his example are their inheritance."