The Moral Washington: Construction of a Legend (1800-1920s)

John McRae, "Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie; I Cut the Tree," 1867 engraving after a painting by G.G. White

George Washington's reputation as a man of moral fortitude reveals more about America's view of morality than it does about the man himself. Washington was an exceedingly bland heroic leader, embodying an eighteenth-century ideal of republican virtue that emphasized duty, sacrifice and honorable disinterest. Flamboyance and daring were emphatically not required. Washington's virtue was admirable, but not overly interesting.

Perhaps this is why the most famous example of his fortitude of character is, in fact, just fiction. The story of Washington and the Cherry Tree, a tale which still lingers through probably every grammar school in the U.S., was invented by a parson named Mason Locke Weems in a biography of Washington published directly after his death. Saturated with tales of Washington's selflessness and honesty, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington(1800) and The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen(1806) supplied the American people with flattering (and often rhyming) renditions of the events that shaped their hero. Weems imagined everthing from Washington's childhood transgression and repentence to his apotheosis when "at the sight of him, even those blessed spirits seem[ed] to feel new raptures" (Weems, 60). According to historian Karal Ann Marling, Weems was struggling to "flesh out a believable and interest ing figure ... to humanize Washington" who had been painted as "cold and colorless" in an earlier, poorly-selling biography. While it is likely that some readers of the time questioned the authenticity of the tales, Weems' portraits soared in popularity in the early 1800s.

More than a century later, Weems would be vigorously debunked by a new corps of biographers intent on resurrecting the real truth of Washington's life. Some favored dismantling the myth wholesale and dismissing it from the record. Others, however, intended to portray the story as apocryphal, but commend its inspirational value anyway. As Marling quotes from a woman who remembered every verse of the story from her days as school, "If the tale isn't true, it should be. It is too pretty to be classified with the myths" (Marling, 310).

In considering the virtues associated with Washington throughout the 19th century, Weems' stories help to unravel what attributes Americans cherished at that time. Piety, for example, stood foremost in the minds of many citizens, especially in the early to mid 1800s, and biblical references were known to everyone. During his lifetime, Washington was often associated with the figure of Moses, leading his people to freedom, a story the people knew well. After his death, perceptions of Washington's relation to God grew. Weems, a parson himself, may have chosen to attach a serene religiosity to Washington as a way to provide a venerated example to the public. One of his best known stories of Washington's piety comes from Weems' account of Washington praying at Valley Forge. Weems tells of a man named Isaac Potts who silently witnesses an unsuspecting Washington, kneeling humbly in the snow, praying for God's blessing of his troops. Although the story was questioned as early as the 1850s, it became emblazoned on the American memory by a painting by Henry Brueckner in the 1860s. Several imitations followed, including the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 and an image on a 1977 postage stamp commemorating Christmas (Marling, 2).

But Washington may not have been as pious as Weems suggests. While Washington regularly attended a Christian church, he would not take communion. On his deathbed, he did not request a minister to be present and asked for no prayers. Biographer Barry Schwartz reports that Washington's "practice of Christianity was limited and superficial, because he was not himself a Christian. In the enlightened tradition of his day, he was a devout Deist--just as many of the clergymen who knew him suspected" (Schwartz, 175).

Honesty and humility also stood as strong 19th-century virtues. The American public may have known that Parson Weems' story of young Washington and his cherry tree rang false, but for the citizenry of the early United States of America, the idea behind the fable declared what they believed was true: Washington equaled honesty. I have no desire to hold onto my power, Washington told the people, and then he kept his word, proving no intention to deceive.

As early as 1799, artists picked up on the persuasive imagery of this act. Alexander Lawson's "General Washington's Resignation" (seen below) depicts Washington, in undecorated military garb, standing a few steps down from the strong female form of Liberty. He has just handed her his resignation and his left hand points downward toward the idlyic countryside. He takes no notice of the elevated power (symbolized by the towers above) he is giving up; his face instead looks pensively outward toward the foregrounded Eagle symbolizing his country's escape from tyranny.

"General Washington's Resignation (1799)," by Alexander Lawson after a design by John Barralet (in Schwartz's George Washington, reprinted from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

The Capitol Rotunda's historical painting by John Trumbull entitled, George Washington Resigning His Commission to Congress as Commander in Chief of the Army at Annapolis, Maryland, December 23, 1783, creates the same effect. Washington's relinquishing power became an essential symbol of America's self-enacted defense from tyranny.

His selflessness appealed to the new American citizenry as well. Washington never requested the appointments he received. When asked to head the Continental Army in 1775, Washington worried aloud if he had the ability to carry out the task. When asked to preside over the Constitutional Convention in 1789, he went reluctantly, leaving a Mount Vernon retirement of rest and domesticity. By the time the Constitutional Convention ended, it was clear that Washington was the best man for the position of President of the United States. But he really didn't want the job. The American public knew that he took it because of an overriding and sacrificial sense of duty to his country.

Continue: Washington Materialized: Paradigm of Enshrinement
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