Washington Adored: Eighteenth Century Reverence and Resentment


Long before his death and even before he served as president, the country loved George Washington. As Commander in Chief, he was escorted to the battlefields by parades of cheering supporters. Even before winning anything, Washington was showered with accolades, including an honorary Doctor of Laws from Harvard. After achieving victory at Yorktown, celebrations and parades overwhelmed him in every large town as he slowly made his way back north.

At the time, a handful of lawmakers expressed reservations about Washington's fame. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton worried that such excessive worship of one man could lead to dangerous abuses. Adams pleaded for calm and reason instead of the "superstitious veneration" paid to Washington. Hamilton chose to keep quiet regarding Washington's unsettling rise to power, but privately suggested the Washington had horded the fame for himself (Schwartz, 88). Thomas Jefferson criticized Washington for his slow intellectual capacities and mind not "of the very first order."

Outside the closed doors of statesmanship, however, the public's declarations of Washington's greatness drowned out any allegations of power-mongering or murmurs of resentment. Washington himself was very concerned about his own reputation and cringed painfully at attacks on his motives and character. But the cheers and accolades that accompanied any visit to an American town helped to reassure him that the people themselves held him in the highest regard. Several, in fact, wished that he would crown himself king--an ironic example of the lingering respectability of monarchies still fresh in the public's mind.

Historian Barry Schwartz argues that the adoration of Washington was built not only on what he did, but when he did it. Washington's upstanding, unflinching, moderate temperament secured the public's respect, but it was the crisis and collective fervor of the moment that propelled Washington's image beyond the realm of his reputation. The people of the country, in Washington's time, needed him. They needed a symbol that would unite their varying and disjuncted regions and stand for something that all could be proud of. They needed an incorruptible soul who would disdain the thought of monarchy but still promote strong rule. They embraced Washington as the man sent to them to do just that.

The fact that a man could embody just what the public demanded of their new country--a sense of freedom and indifference to individual power--validated their cause and proved it could be realized. If Washington could exist, then so could their hoped- for liberty from Britain.



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