February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
Both admirers and detractors have invented myths about our first President. A famous biographer tells of his years spent trying to separate fact from fiction.
Anyone who has the temerity, as I have had, to set out in quest of a true understanding of George Washington undertakes a perilous adventure that requires climbing over hallucinatory mountains and penetrating ghost-ridden forests. When in old age, under attack by enemies who wished to discredit his policies, Washington wrote hopefully, “...by the records of my administration and not the voice of faction I hope to be acquitted or condemned hereafter.” The records voluminously remain, but his hopes have not been realized. Faction is, indeed, only one of many elements that create the cacophony that has down the years drowned out the true greatness of Washington.
Basic to the whole phantasmagoria are two roles that Washington has played in the American psyche: first as the father of our country, and second as human equivalent of the American flag.
Sigmund Freud has described how “infantile fantasies” concerning people’s own fathers can shape their conceptions of historical figures: “They obliterate the individual features of their subject’s physiognomy; they smooth out the traces of his life’s struggles with internal and external resistances; and they tolerate in him no vestiges of human weakness or imperfection. Thus, they present us with what is in fact a cold, strange, ideal figure instead of a human being to whom we might feel ourselves distantly related.” This exactly describes the marble image of Washington, which has been made even more grotesque by the fallacious insertion in its mouth of wooden false teeth.
The confusion of the human Washington with the American flag has altered his image in differing ways. When the people are happy with their nation, as they were during most of the nineteenth century, Washington is deified. When, as in contemporary times, people are disillusioned, they enjoy suspecting Washington’s integrity, even to the extent of welcoming with enthusiasm the false charge that as commander in chief he anticipated modern crooked business practice by cheating on his expense account. During this down phase many have sought in Washington’s presumed misdeeds justification for their own bad behavior. Mount Vernon was for years plagued by visitors demanding to be shown the field where Washington grew his marijuana crop. Washington, we are told, was known as “the stallion of the Potomac”; no pure woman could without danger be left alone in his presence. The famous English historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee vented his spleen concerning American disobedience during the Revolution by stating that Washington died because of a chill received while on an illicit visit to an adolescent girl in the slave quarters.
More persistent are the legends that were fabricated and widely disseminated during the nineteenth century, when his prestige was so high that zealots of all political and moral persuasions forged Washington’s endorsement for whatever cause they wished to dignify. The reigning genius in this endeavor was Parson Weems, whose Life of George Washington, an expanded Sunday School tract, went through more than eighty editions. Feeling a need to spice up the fifth edition, Weems invented a morality play about a cherry tree, little George, his hatchet, and his inability to lie. For generations this goody-goody tale darkened Washington’s public image.
Alas, the most prolific forgers of statements for Washington have been ministers of the gospel. It sometimes seems that Parson Weems’s biography has had almost as many successors as there have been poor parsons with flocks of children to feed. Propagandists for every variety of Christian belief have written for Washington prayers tailored to their particular doctrines.
One account attributed to a Quaker (who, impious scholars have discovered, was not then at Valley Forge) that he had seen Washington lying on the ground there, tears flowing from his eyes as he called on God, has resulted in a church’s being built on the designated spot. The truth is that Washington, like Franklin and Jefferson, was a deist. He avoided the word God, preferring Providence, which he called sometimes “he,” sometimes “she,” and sometimes “it.” This did not mean that he was not, according to his own lights, a highly religious man.
The evidence presents a very strong presumption that Washington was, although not impotent, sterile: Martha had had four children in quick succession by a previous husband, but she had none by Washington. This has not prevented his being supplied with many descendants. The most famous is Hamilton: his idolaters, who have insisted (incorrectly) that Washington treated their hero as if he were an adopted son, have slipped over into postulating that Hamilton was in fact Washington’s son. In truth, the future President, as a young man, had gone to the West Indies, where Hamilton was born, but at an altogether wrong date to have been the father. A surprising number of individuals in whose genealogy there is a potentially embarrassing gap have by second sight determined that the missing progenitor, the name suppressed for reasons of state, was Washington.
A major booby trap for a Washington biographer is the proud belief that “George Washington slept here.” When a neophyte, I would benevolently inform hostesses that Washington had never been within a hundred miles of the place, and then (metaphorically) 1 would have to flee for my life. Now I smile and say nothing. Members of old Southern families outdo Northern claims that Washington slept somewhere by confiding that their ancestresses refused Washington’s proposals of marriage.
Perhaps the ultimate myth has been confided to me by two Southern blue-bloods, altogether independently of each other: Martha, the story goes, had revealed to one of their forebears that George Washington was a woman. A probable source for this can be ascertained: during the Revolution the Tory press teased the rebels by printing that Washington had been seen unawares wearing petticoats.