The Image Recapitulated


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 represented a kind of moral compass for American society, this compass has pointed toward different directions during different eras. 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. Even as he lived, his image began to be appropriated and invoked, largely serving as a political tool, validating or justifying the program of the group fortunate enough to be somehow aligned with him, and/or to be recognized to be aligned with him. This was indicated in the earlier sections, The Focal Point, and The Non-Partisan Political Leader.

In antebellum America, Washington's reputation made him out almost as a deity. 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. Michael Kammen notes that in 1857 Washington's birthday was proposed as a national holiday by Henry T. Tuckerman, in the hope that "such a day might induce 'a unanimity of feeling and of rites, which shall fuse and mold into one pervasive emotion the divided hearts of the country ...'" (Kammen, p.71). 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, even complements: the figure of Lincoln addressed the issue of race and better contained the frontier mythos than could that of Washington, even as Washington might still have suggested to both North and South a unity and commonality in spirit that Lincoln had only helped effect in physical and political terms.

Even if some of its moral force has tended to wane, the image of Washington through time has clung to its original connotations of virtue and strength. Frequently invoked by a variety of sources and in a variety of arenas, from political to commercial, Washington's persona is omnipresent. While its characteristics have undergone changes in emphasis and so, have aggregated meanings, the image of George Washington has stood fixed as a point of common cultural reference, a multi-leveled symbol whose importance can now in a way be said to be self-justifying, an importance founded upon its very importance throughout our national history--leaving us a contemporary icon whose face symbolizes more than a dollar bill.


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