THE MARBLE DEITY ?
Dave Schuler has an excellent post up commemorating the birthday of George Washington, our first President and the only founding father that the other founding fathers, generally a squabbling bunch, regarded with a degree of awe. Dave writes:
“Such was Washington’s popularity that, had he desired to remain in office, he would have been overwhelmingly re-elected. They’d have made him king if he’d wanted it. This is why he was called “the American Cincinnatus”: the voluntary leaving of power.”
When I was in grad school, a student asked the professor in a colonial era history seminar what was Washington’s importance in the larger scheme of American history? The professor, whose research interests went more toward documenting the small doings of the unwashed and dispossessed, replied ” He retired.”
This received a quiet general laugh for cutting to the heart of the matter of Washington helping ensure that our Revolution, unlike almost all others that followed, was civilized and humane. Washington was not without ambition; aside from the Kings of Spain and Portugal, he became one of the largest private landowners in the Americas but the yardstick Washington measured himself by was that of Anglo-Virginian gentry respectability, not the glory of Roman Caesars. The desire to order the lives of other men was far less strong in Washington than his desire to be left alone.
Washington’s preeminence and political charisma came from a reputation of spotless integrity, reticence, perseverence and personal dignity that was reinforced by a record of bravery and physical stature that left him the most impressive figure in any hall or drawing room. Made the president of the Constitutional Convention, one brief reproach from Washington was enough to keep the delegates sworn to secrecy; one simple gesture conceding human weakness, quelled an incipient rebellion of Continental Army officers. Washington’s presence was usually a more eloquent argument than his words.
This aloofness that Washington cultivated out of insecurity and natural inclinaton has left him remote from modern Americans in a way that the irascible John Adams or the intellectual Thomas Jefferson are not. Our view of the Father of Our Country is still that seen in The Apotheosis of Washington that graces the Capitol Building or in The American Zeus – both of which, incidentally, would have horrified Washington. This is unfortunate because while George Washington was not as lettered or learned as Adams or Madison nor as brilliant as Jefferson or Hamilton the man was no idealized marble statue. He was a very shrewd judge of men and possessed keen insight into the limitations of power and the suprising reach of the power of example.
Washington was not merely the best of men by the standards of his day but the best man for the times.