George Washington for our time

February 13th, 2013

On December 26, 1799, Henry Lee delivered the immortal words that George Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” This was undoubtedly true—200 years ago. Today, the power of the name has faded, and come Monday we are more likely to celebrate Presidents’ Day sales than we are the presidents themselves. And although the federal holiday remains “Washington’s Birthday” (though, set for the third Monday of February, it never actually occurs on his actual birthday), the change in the popular conception of the day to “Presidents’ Day” has caused some confusion regarding whether we are suppose to be honoring only Washington (and perhaps his fellow February giant, Lincoln), or all presidents, regardless of merit. 

Noemie Emery, writing in her 1976 biography of Washington, notes that “the enigma of George Washington has never been resolved:

Remote, brooding, inaccessible, he stares down from the Houdon statue, bones massive in the nose and jawline, melancholy in the downturn of the mouth. The eyes, wide-set and solemn, look into the middle distance, skirting contact and comprehension, sealing their secret in themselves. The face presents a challenge that intrigues as it baffles and defies. 

In so characterizing Washington, Emery challenges us to view the first president with fresh eyes. This is the goal of our latest ebook on the American Calendar: “The Meaning of George Washington’s Birthday.” In the book, editors Amy and Leon Kass examine the words and deeds of the of the “Father of Our Country” and consider why it is that we celebrate them. The first chapter explores the origins and traditions of how Americans have celebrated George Washington’s birthday, dating from the very beginnings of our republic. The second chapter looks at the life and career of Washington: his early education and military career; his time taking command—and relinquishing it—during the Revolutionary War; and his leadership as America’s first president. The final chapter raises questions about how we, 200 years removed, are to remember Washington.

And as Emery reminds, there is much to know and remember:

The reality [of Washington] is the inverse of the image, flawed and broken, violent, complex. Incident and irony weave strange and unexpected patterns in his life. He began a great world war when he was twenty-two years old, was branded an “assassin” in the courts of Europe, and chided for barbarity by Voltaire. In the war that followed, his pride, insolence, and insubordination were famous—and infamous—among British and colonial commanders in the skirmishes against the French. Eaten by a fierce ambition, he pursued fame relentlessly, missed it, and discovered later, when it came unbidden, that he had somehow lost the taste. He proposed to one woman while in love with another, married the first in a mood of almost bitter resignation, and found later that this, too, could change. Cool, aloof, and distant, he was known for the cold qualities of what Jefferson called his perfect justice, yet Jefferson, and others, sense the hidden violence; portraitist Gilbert Stuart observed the lineaments of all the strongest passions and said that if he had lived among the Indians, he would have been the most fierce of all the savage chiefs. The results of those banked fires were apparent then and still endure: the army saved, the union soldered, the ambitions, flames, and talents of Hamilton, Jefferson, John Adams—the most contentious lot to coexist in any house of government—overmastered and subdued.

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