- Historic Sites
Richard Brookhiser has spent four years trying to capture for the television screen the character of perhaps the greatest American.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
One we checked is the story that Washington, as a young man, could throw a stone across the Rappahannock. In later popular memory the missile becomes a silver dollar, and the river can be the Potomac (which would take a bionic arm) or even the Delaware (myth gridlock: Was he finding the range for the Army’s boats?). Here is the ur-version of Weems: “Col. Lewis Willis, [Washington’s] playmate and kinsman, has been heard to say, that he has often seen him throw a stone across Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg. It would be no easy matter to find a man, nowadays, who could do it.” We were interested in the story because Washington’s strength was an element of his charisma, one of his more important traits (before you can lead, you must be noticed).
We found that the Rappahannock, behind Ferry Farm where Washington had lived as a boy, is about 400 feet wide, a throw from deep center field to home plate; modern dredging has made the river narrower than it was in the eighteenth century. In 1936 Hall of Famer Walter Johnson threw a metal weight across. We got the pitchers from the local high school baseball team, who were Washington’s age when he lived there, to try; the results tend to confirm Weems.
Some stories have been shamefully forgotten. The other battle we treated, besides Monmouth, was the Battle of Long Island (August 1776), an example of what could happen to the Continental army before it became professional. Washington was trying to defend New York against an immense British land-sea force. The two armies met on the western tip of Long Island, in what is now Brooklyn. The British managed to outflank the American line, and panic set in. Total defeat was averted only by an act of unusual valor: One Maryland unit managed to hold off the onrushing enemy long enough for the survivors to escape to the safety of Brooklyn Heights. Outnumbered by more than five to one, the Marylanders repeatedly attacked the British; only 10 of the 400-man unit made it back to Brooklyn Heights themselves that night. Washington, unable to send them reinforcements, watched the doomed gallant action and during it exclaimed, “My God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!”
The dead Marylanders were laid in a mass grave on farmland that was in time built over. In 1952 Congress directed the Army to make the site a national monument if it was ever found. It has been found. But in the way of bureaucracies, one thing didn’t lead to another, and the heroes still lie beneath the Brooklyn rust belt. We filmed what stands over their graves today—an auto body shop.
Forgetting the Marylanders is shameful. But, in another place, we found a commendable refusal to honor the dead in the wrong way. Early in the nineteenth century, Congress planned to make the Rotunda of the Capitol a memorial to the Founding Father. Washington’s casket was to be taken from the family vault at Mount Vernon, where it had been laid in 1799, and reburied in a sarcophagus visible through a hole in the Rotunda floor. A white marble plug marks the spot on the floor where the hole was cut, and two floors down an empty catafalaue still awaits its intended occupant.
WE FILMED WHAT IS ON THE GRAVES OF THE MARYLANDERS WHO SAVED WASHINGTON’S ARMY: AN AUTO BODY SHOP.
The Washington family scotched the plan, insisting that Washington had wanted to remain at Mount Vernon after death. Surely they were right. One of the greatest achievements of his life—as great as anything he accomplished in battle, at the Constitutional Convention, or during his Presidency—was to step aside when his jobs were done. A permanent presence, like the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides or even the kitschy larger-than-life images in the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, would have been a political and aesthetic blunder. Washington’s relatives knew better than his admirers, and Washington, master of reticence and withdrawal, knew best of all.
The most surprising and hopeful thing I learned about Washington was the attitude of average Americans toward him. One technique Michael is fond of is vox populi, asking men and women in the street what they think about the film’s subject. Time and again the same pattern appeared. People knew next to nothing about the details of Washington’s career; when they did know something, it was often false (like throwing silver Hollars across the Potomac). Yet there was an enormous goodwill toward him, and the reason for this goodwill was a valid one: People sensed that, as Adams had told Rush, Washington could be trusted. One of the most impressive bits of vox pop came in Newburgh, New York, near Washington’s last headquarters of the Revolutionary War. It was there in 1783 that Washington deflated a potential mutiny of his unpaid officers, deflecting the new nation from the path of putsches and pronunciamentos that so many other revolutions have taken. The Washington headquarters site in downtown Newburgh is lovingly preserved; the city, like many an old industrial town on the Hudson River, is in less good shape. After shooting in the headquarters, we trolled for vox pop in a neighborhood barbershop and on the streets. A twentyish black man in an athletic undershirt told us he liked what he knew of Washington. Because of him, the United States was an independent country, and “I have the opportunities I have today.” A cynic, looking at that young man’s neighborhood, might not see many opportunities. But the young man did, and he correctly held Washington responsible, in some part, for creating them.
Americans often have the right instincts about their history. If a film like ours can help tell them why their instincts are right, we will have done our part.