Recapitulation of His Image Through Time
Although George Washington's reputation has been relatively
stable through time, and consistently revered as the embodiment
of American virtue, this reverence has taken several forms.
Society's view of George Washington has changed with its view of
itself. While Washington has always stood for the ideal moral
compass of our society, this compass has pointed in different
directions at different times. These changes in current can be
classified in three major periods: during his lifetime;
antebellum America; and after the Civil War.
During his lifetime, George Washington was consistently venerated
by the American public. While he was still alive, Washington was
referred to as "The Father of Our Country," and most Americans
trusted and adored him (for further information on this, see "Washington Adored").
In antebellum America, Washington's reputation approached
deification. From the period 1800-1860, at least 400 books and
essays on George Washington's life were published. The entire
nation identified with his image, regardless of state or region.
During the Civil War, Mount Vernon was considered "neutral
territory," both sides laying claim to the legacy of Washington.
His home was too sacred to be used as a war-trophy for either
After the Civil War, images of Washington began to compete
with the image of Abraham Lincoln for space in the American
psyche. As our conception of "liberty" began to encompass
"equality," Lincoln joined Washington as a talisman of American
virtue. Lincoln's image began to attract its own apocryphal
elements which reinforced America's ideas about itself.
Washington's myth was not diminished, but Lincoln's was placed
next to it in the pantheon of great American leaders. Washington
was frequently invoked to validate the virtual canonization of
Lincoln, and the two leaders were viewed as natural compatriots.
Lincoln's myth addressed those issues of race and class that
Washington's neglected, and images of the two Presidents were
The image of Washington through time has not lost its
power. Frequently invoked by a variety of sources, from
political to commercial, Washington's persona is omnipresent.
While its characteristics have undergone subtle changes in
emphasis, the image of George Washington has remained firmly
entrenched and consistently revered. His image through time has culminated in a contemporary icon whose face symboizes much more than a dollar bill.
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