Washington Used Today

George Washington's image today represents a paradox, juxtaposing an icon embodying America's foundational virtues of piety, honest, and humility with an increasingly exploited symbol that has been emptied of value by overuse. This exploitation, however, did not gain momentum until the second half of the twentieth century. For the eighteenth, nineteenth, and much of the twentieth century, the image of George Washington evoked pictures of aristocracy, domestic virtue, and good business sense. Schoolchildren were constantly inculcated with the lessons of the cherry tree myth. For example, until the 1950's, cookie cutter sets were not complete without the requisite hatchet for George Washington sugar cookies (Marling, 15).

Today, while Washington is still legendary for his moral rectitude, and his image is invoked in advertisements for colonial revival furniture and in the invitations of high society functions, to many the commercialization of his image has emptied it of meaning. The most prevalent image of Washington appears each February in a phalanx of department store sales and car dealership ads. Still, when America originally placed Washington within a context of commerce, it was drawing upon ample biographical evidence. He was a punctilious businessman and landowner, a man who loved to count, measure and weigh his possessions. Biographer W.E. Woodward calls him "a thing man not an idea man," for Washington was deeply interested in the hows but not the whys of the world. The Father of Our Country did not speak a foreign language, did not appreciate art, and did not read for pleasure. When he died, his library contained almost 900 volumes, but the vast majority of these were concerned with agricultural or commercial matters. As a boy, he often used his surveying skills as a party trick--after dinner, young George would survey the turnip patch for the Washington's' guests. His mind was concerned with the prosaic details of business. Halsted Ritter termed him the "prototype of the modern man of business." Fittingly, the United States placed his portrait on its most common paper currency, the dollar bill.

By now, rampant commercialization has arguably bled the symbol of much of its significance. Barry Schwartz writes "the transformation is inevitable. To expect that a nation should turn out, year after year, in heartfelt veneration for a man who died many years ago is to make unrealistic on demands on its capacity for emotional attachment" (199). But some meaning must remain, for Washington's image has reached the peculiar distinction of being the object of parody. He is lampooned for those qualities for which we revere him--honesty, piety and virtue, and for the omnipresence of his image.

In the cartoon shown, Gary Larson depicts "Washington Crossing the Street," demonstrating the adaptability of Washington's myth, and its instant recognition. Edward Sorel's drawing "Nixon Crossing the Delaware" proves that the symbol of Washington still resonates within the American consciousness. The substitution of Nixon for Washington highlights the jarring contrast between the perceived steady guidance of The Father of Our Country and Nixon's rocky presidency. The fact that Americans find humor in the scene asserts the continued strength of Washington's myth.

This paradox of constant reverence but increasing irrelevance does not mean that Washington is fading from America's collective memory. The Washington Monument still stands as the pinnacle of our nation's capital, and remains an omnipresent icon. Although Far Side comics and abundant advertising may signal a growing cynicism, we still need George Washington. "The more modern we become, in fact, the more desperately we cling to our Washingtons, to our old-fashioned heroes, to an imagined colonial past, to the good old days when patriots stood firm on their pedestals" (Marling, viii).

Back to the Beginning: The Apotheosis of George Washington: Brumidi's Fresco and Beyond