The Focal Point: Reverence and Resentment in Washington's Lifetime


Long before his death and even before he served as president, the country loved George Washington. As Commander-in-Chief, he was escorted to the battlefields by parades of cheering supporters. Even before winning anything, Washington was showered with accolades, including an honorary Doctor of Laws from Harvard. After achieving victory at Yorktown, celebrations and parades overwhelmed him in every large town as he slowly made his way back north.

At the time, a handful of lawmakers expressed reservations about Washington's fame. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton worried that such excessive worship of one man could lead to dangerous abuses. Adams pleaded for calm and reason instead of the "superstitious veneration" paid to Washington. Hamilton chose to keep quiet regarding Washington's unsettling rise to power, but privately suggested the Washington had horded the fame for himself (Schwartz, 88). Thomas Jefferson criticized Washington for his slow intellectual capacities and mind not "of the very first order."

Outside the closed doors of statesmanship, however, the public's declarations of Washington's greatness drowned out any allegations of power-mongering or murmurs of resentment. Washington himself was very concerned about his own reputation and cringed in evident pain at attacks on his motives and character. But the cheers and accolades that accompanied any visit he made to an American town helped to reassure him that the people themselves held him in the highest regard. Several, in fact, wished that he would crown himself king--an ironic example of the lingering traces of respectability to which the idea of monarchy still made some claim in America.

One telling exception to such seemingly unqualified adoration, however, is noted by Martin Van Buren in his Political Parties in the United States. In May 1783 there was established the "Society of the Cincinnati," which consisted of the former "officers of the army" of the Revolutionary War, and at whose head Washington was placed. It was a group "desirous of perpetuating the memory of the relations of respect and friendship" that had developed among the soldiers during the war, but a problem arose in that it "made the honor of membership hereditary" (Van Buren, p.21). According to Van Buren, the monarchical or quasi-aristocratic tendencies of the general public had not surged enough even to let such an unexeptionable proposal pass unchallenged: "The measure was assailed in all the forms in which an offended public opinion finds vent." Washington, "justly alarmed at the consequences it might produce," did all he could "to arrest its progress," and accordingly proposed to the Society that it should "'discontinue the hereditary part in all its connections'" (Van Buren, pp.21,22). For a group self-consciously fashioning itself after an image of the selfless farmer-hero, the underlying potential for a self-serving elitism (reminiscent of problems with later heridtary organizations such as the D.A.R.) was too close to the surface. Washington, whose apparently fine-honed sense of popular opinion led him to counteract popular "'suspicion,'" once again proved the able leader--this time, of a movement which provided the organizational space for an important facet of his own developing image. His proposal was accepted, and public anger abated.

Historian Barry Schwartz argues that the adoration of Washington was built not only on what he did, but when he did it. Washington's upstanding, unflinching, moderate temperament secured the public's respect, but it was the crisis and collective fervor of the moment that propelled Washington's image beyond the realm of his reputation. The people of the country, in Washington's time, needed him. They needed a symbol that would unite their varying and disjuncted regions and stand for something that all could be proud of. They needed an incorruptible soul who would disdain the thought of monarchy but still promote strong rule. They embraced Washington as the man sent to them to do just that.

The fact that a man could embody just what the public demanded of their new country--a sense of freedom and indifference to individual power--validated their cause and proved it could be realized. If Washington could exist, then so could their hoped- for liberty from Britain.



Continue: The Non-Partisan Political Leader
Back to the Beginning: The Apotheosis of George Washington: Brumidi's Fresco and Beyond