It all began when an architectural student named Edward Lawler wrote an article describing numerous points of interest concerning the country’s first Presidential Mansion. The mansion was located in Philadelphia, and it housed George Washington during his two terms, and John Adams during the bulk of his one term. Built in the late 1760s, the mansion was the largest and most prestigious in Philadelphia and had been inhabited by such luminaries as Richard Penn (grandson of the Pennsylvania colony’s founder William Penn); the British general William Howe (who occupied Philadelphia during the winter of 1777 while Washington and his army were waiting out the snows at Valley Forge); Benedict Arnold (who may have conceived his plots against the colonies there); and Robert Morris (who was a really, really, really rich man who helped finance the revolution.) Lawler mapped out the dimensions of the house, and pointed out that, within a few steps of the new Liberty Bell Center, Washington’s slaves had once been housed.
It’s an old argument. Do we judge great historical figures from our perspective or theirs? Lawler’s article, tucked away in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, soon created a full-fledged controversy. What was the story here? Was it that the first president lived here? Or was it that the first president kept slaves here? Before you could say Yo, it’s our art center, the controversy was joined by writers, scholars, activists, and historians.
To many it was an argument about the way in which our history should be told. Early Washington biographers had written from the perspective of the white landowners who financed the revolution. Why not now tell it from the perspective of the slaves? Why not, in particular, tell it from the perspective of Martha’s slave, Oney Judge, who had the temerity and bravery to escape Washington’s clutches? Why not do this in Philadelphia, a city with a large African-American population? Why not? Because – said some – to do so is to distort the true importance of the building in a craven attempt to placate fringe organizations demanding that 18th Century figures be judged by 21st Century standards.
Nothing would have bothered Washington more or, I suspect, surprised him less, than controversies such as this. Throughout his life he grappled with slavery in all its unsavory aspects, never arriving at a truly satisfactory answer about what should be done about it. His feelings on this issue are as elliptical (and arguably contradictory) as are his thoughts on most things.
We probably know less about George Washington, the father of our country, than we do about any of the other giants of the Revolutionary era. Jefferson’s irrepressible pen has assured his inclusion in posterity’s heart and soul, even as welearn that he lived in a dramatically different fashion than those writings would indicate. John Adams once said that, throughout their time together in the Continental Congress, he had never heard Jefferson “string three words together.” With his pen, though, he could do more than just that. His writings are free-flowing and audacious, and come to us sounding like the spontaneous overflow of a brilliant and singular mind.
It isn’t only his writings that make him so familiar to us. By planning and building his own dream house at Monticello, he has left behind a concrete example of his inner-world, which is the world in which he spent the bulk of his time.
We feel like we know Jefferson. His buying habits show him to be a spendthrift, more interested in having the greatest library, the most stylish clothes, and the latest inventions, than in paying his bills. (If you ask Jefferson to choose between having the most stylish carriage or freeing two human beings, there an be little doubt that he would choose the carriage.)
Of course, through modern technology, we have learned even more about the Virginia aristocrat, thanks to the scientific discovery that proved to a near certainty that he fathered a child, and perhaps more than one, with Sally Hemmings, his slave. Bob Dylan once wrote that “even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked,” and though it took almost two hundred years to strip Jefferson bare, the day did come.
We know Adams as well. We know him, for the most part, because he lacked the guile necessary to hide himself from others. In his diaries, his letters, his books, his speeches, and his day-to-day contacts with friends and foes, John Adams revealed himself.
As did Madison, Hamilton, John Jay, Franklin…none of these people seemed to their associates to be particularly mysterious. Nor do they seem that way to us.
But Washington was – always – different. Perhaps it is from Washington himself that we get that American hero, the strong and silent type personified by the likes of John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. The truth is, there were few people in Washington’s time who would have said that they were on intimate terms with the great man. He always understood that his role was different from everyone else’s, requiring him to stand apart, hold his piece, be a mediator, not a partisan.
Maybe it is his relative lack of education, the death of his father, the strange relationship with his mother. But for whatever reason, Washington was a man who usually kept his opinions to himself. He did not even unburden himself within the confines of his diary, but merely recited in painstaking detail his activities.
My personal introduction to Washington, and to history in general, came on that fateful day when I was in the 2nd grade and my mother picked me up from camp to take me to the musical 1776. John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Dickenson, and Richard Henry Lee danced, laughed, sang, got horny, argued, cursed, and joked. But when the soldier from the army would enter the stage, all such merry-making stopped, and everyone listened attentively to the latest missive from Washington, which would describe the fearsome events his army was going through in tones of solemnity and reverence. There was no joking when these letters were read, and nobody so much as cleared his voice. Washington’s presence was distant but prevalent, both foreboding and comforting.
It was fitting somehow. While most Americans spend their lives in the silliness and frivolity of which I have been accustomed, the Washington’s of the world had no time for such things, but merely went off, quietly, to win us our freedom. (There’s that word – us? Who, in this day and age, is us? Is there an us? Did he win freedom for all of us, or just some of us?)
If anyone was essential to what was once termed “the American experiment,” it was Washington. Our collective image of him comes from the famous portrait by Gilbert Stuart, and his expression – he looks like a particularly tetchy older relative on a bad day, a sort of Mitch Romney with hemorrhoids – is often attributed to two factors. One is that he had just started using a pair of particularly ill-fitting dentures (and not, the wooden teeth of lore.) And, two, he did not particularly like Stewart and was not comfortable in his presence. Not that the Stewart didn’t try. “Now sir,” said the loquacious painter, “you must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart the painter.” “Mr. Stuart,” Washington icily replied, “need never feel the need of forgetting who he is, or who General Washington is.”
Perhaps if Washington could have relaxed on that occasion, our image of him today would be less dour. Those who knew Washington thought him anything but stodgy and plain. The sculptor William Rush said that he had “the most graceful attitudes I ever saw.” One of his servant’s recalled Washington in these terms: “So tall, so straight. And…with such an air! Ah, sire, he was like no one else!” When Abigail Adams first set eyes upon him, she was clearly enamored. “You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of George Washington,” she wrote her husband, “but I thought the half was not told me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman and soldier, look agreeably blended in him.” Washington was the ultimate Big Man on Campus. He was the kind of man everybody wanted to cultivate. Women, for whom he was particularly charming, sought him out and wanted to talk to him at functions, and men wanted to become comrades. The story is told by painter Charles Wilson Peale that when he and “several young gentlemen” were testing each other’s strength in a friendly competition, “pitching the bar,” which was the hurling of iron bars, Washington appeared. “He requested to be shown the pegs that marked the bounds of our efforts; then, smiling, and without putting off his coat, held out his hand for the missile. No sooner did the heavy iron bar feel the grasp of his mighty hand than it lost the power of gravitation…striking the ground far…beyond our utmost limits. We were indeed amazed, as we stood around, all stripped to the buff…having thought ourselves very clever fellows, while the colonel, on retiring, pleasantly observed, ‘When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.’”
He was impressive, but elusive, even then. Once Gouverneur Morris pooh-poohed a group of Washington’s compatriots who found themselves eyeing the great man from across the room at a function, discussing his aloofness. When Morris said that he was as familiar with Washington as with others, Hamilton – so the story goes – offered a wager. He would buy dinner for a dozen delegates if Morris strode up to Washington, slapped him on the shoulder, and said, ‘My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well.’ Morris won the bet, but Washington glowered at him so icily that Morris regretted rising to the bait.
While we can feel friendly with Franklin and intellectually inferior but morally superior to Jefferson, Washington is treated by most Americans with a strange diffidence. Ron Chernow quotes Hawthorne, who mockingly wrote that Washington “was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.” The historian concludes that, “[s]omething essential about Washington has been lost to posterity, making him seem a worthy but plodding man who somehow stumbled into greatness.”
Perhaps we began losing touch with Washington after he died and was quickly recreated in the image of an almost bloodless hero. Parson Weemes was the first and possibly greatest offender although Justice Marshall’s scholarship on Washington, though less fantastical than Weems’, did little to enliven our image of him.
And suddenly, Washington was in the center of a raging controversy in Philadelphia that focused on the issue of slavery, not only in regards to Washington’s thoughts and actions, but also in regard to those of the slaves themselves. Oddly enough, to most white Americans and even historians, considering slavery from the slave’s perspective, even partially, was a brand new experience.
I wanted to hear what all the noise was about. But first, I wanted to spend some time acquainting myself with Washington so that my opinion on the ensuing controversy might have some basis. I decided to start with on of my all favorite historical moments, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.