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 side.

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 sometimes complementary.

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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