George Washington: President, Man, Myth
Americans call George Washington “the father of our country.”
Most people know him best as the first president of the United States, from 1789 to 1797. But the list of his accomplishments is long. Washington commanded the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. He led the American colonists to freedom from British rule. He was also president of the convention that created the U.S. Constitution.
In his private life, Washington owned a large whiskey distillery and thousands of acres of land. He operated a large and successful farm. When the Revolutionary War was over, General Washington wanted to go home to his Virginia estate, called Mount Vernon.
Joseph Ellis is a historian and prize-winning author who wrote a book called “His Excellency: George Washington.”
“He didn’t want to be president. No president in American history did not want to be president more than George Washington.”
But other leaders asked him to become the first president under the Constitution. Every elector voted for him. Washington accepted the job as his duty.
Washington as president
When George Washington was sworn in as president in 1789, the idea of a truly united states was still just an idea. Americans were unconnected social, economic and ethnic groups. For example, a quarter of the people in the state of Pennsylvania spoke only German. The new president would have to establish a social and political union under the Constitution.
But the Constitution did not say in detail how the president could do that. Doug Bradburn, founding director of the Washington Library at Mount Vernon, says George Washington invented the job of president.
“I think that what people don’t estimate in their scale of judging his skill as a political figure is just how fragile the country was, that the chances it would even survive were probably very, very slim.”
Mr. Bradburn says President Washington set many important precedents for all the presidents who followed him. First, he was not just a figurehead but a decision maker.
He established a group of advisors, the cabinet. They became a very important part of the presidency, or executive branch. Washington chose strong people to lead the departments. Sometimes those cabinet members disagreed strongly, but Washington managed them well.
President Washington also established the nation’s official currency and the Department of Foreign Affairs, now called the State Department. He created a six-member Supreme Court.
And, Washington said the president should set foreign policy. That responsibility was not clear in the Constitution.
Mr. Bradburn says Washington took his job very seriously and always used the Constitution as his guide.
“He wasn’t just trying to establish an office and then figure out a way to justify it, he was trying to work with his Constitution.”
As president, George Washington travelled around the country. In Rhode Island, he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Truro. The letter spoke eloquently about the rights of Jews. Mr. Bradburn says this letter is “tremendously significant.” Supporting the Jews and their religion was a revolutionary act of acceptance for its time.
Washington as a young man
George Washington was born in 1732 in Virginia. His father died when George was 11 years old. As a boy, he learned reading, writing and math. Then he worked as a land surveyor in western Virginia.
In his twenties, he became a British Army officer. George Washington fought in the French and Indian War.
Mr. Ellis points out that Washington did not have a formal or college education like many other early U.S. leaders, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
“But in some sense, Adams goes to Harvard, and Jefferson goes to William and Mary and Washington goes to war.”
Mr. Ellis says the first president was “a realist.” At the same time, he was a “very passionate man” with “extremely strong emotions.” He was known to get angry, but he only showed his temper to a few people.
Washington not only acted like a great leader – he looked like one. George Washington stood about 1.9 meters tall. He was a head taller than the average man of his time.
He was very strong, and very graceful. He was known as one of the best horseback riders and best dancers in Virginia.
But he had a problem: bad teeth.
Unlike his wife, Martha, who was known for her lovely smile, George Washington began losing his teeth in his twenties. When he was sworn in as president, he had only one tooth left.
Dentists made him sets of dentures from uncomfortable metal and springs. Some of the teeth were from hippopotamus ivory. Mr. Ellis says Washington even paid some of his slaves for their teeth.
“About six of the teeth in his mouth in his latter years, when he is president, are actually from slaves at Mount Vernon.”
Washington as a myth
Even today people tell stories about George Washington. One popular story, that he had wooden teeth, is not true.
And he did not chop down a cherry tree as a child and then admit it by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” In fact, historian Joseph Ellis says George Washington “lied many times.”
But as Washington became more famous, his reputation as a man who always did the right thing grew. Mr. Ellis tells about one artist who painted Washington’s portrait. The artist painted what he thought people wanted to see, instead of what he really saw.
“When the artist was painting one of his famous presidential portraits in 1795, and it’s the famous Vaughan portrait, it’s of the icon. But he said, ‘as I looked at him he looked to me like the wildest animal in the forest,’ but that’s not what he painted.”
Mr. Ellis says even George Washington understood people would look at his writings and judge him in history.
“At some point in his life, probably during the war, Washington went from being a man to a monument. He was aware of the fact that he had a role to play and that all emerging nations need mythical heroes.”
Washington became very protective of his personal thoughts. His wife, Martha, whom he married in 1759, burned most of their letters when her husband died.
Doug Bradburn of the Washington Library at Mount Vernon says people can know the first president by his actions. He says George Washington had an unusual range of abilities.
“As a politician, you know, as a statesman, as a military figure. These are all things that he develops through practice and through reading.”
George Washington had one main regret. He told a close aide that he wished he had been able to do something about slavery. When he died, on December 14, 1799, George Washington freed his slaves in his will. He also gave money to the slaves and their children to receive an education.
Historian Joseph Ellis says one of the best things about George Washington was his ability to give up power.
“One of his greatest assets was he was a great aficionado of exits, of giving up power. You could trust Washington with power because he was so conspicuously willing to give it up.”
At the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington gave up his sword. And at the end of his presidency, Washington simply went back to Mount Vernon.
Doug Bradburn says Washington was the right man to be the father of the country and first president. Mr. Bradburn, like many historians, calls George Washington the “indispensable man.” He made ideas about American freedom and government real, and he showed that even the president would operate under the rule of law.
I’m Anne Ball.