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Reflecting on the life of George Washington, the Columbian Reader (a textbook utilized in school rooms throughout the United States in the nineteenth century) proclaimed that, "the character of General Washington will be transmitted to posterity, and the memory of his virtues, while patriotism and virtue are held sacred among men, will remain undiminished."
Washington's personality was embellished by "no false and tinsel ornaments, and was incapable of change from the varying accidents of manners, of opinions, and times."1 While the sentiment may have been bathed in the language of absolutes, it reflected the public image and personality that Washington worked hard at crafting.
Augustine Washington, George Washington's father, died when his son was only eleven years old. Though born of provincial gentry, George Washington discerned that to be artful was not enough, and as a result developed ideals for his character at an early age. Washington's circumstances did not match British ideals of what an upwardly mobile man should be, so he labored to shape his identity in "American" terms. Washington's experiences uncovered truths that enabled him to create a unique public persona for himself within a new, burgeoning America.
Washington believed that external appearance should reflect inner merit. He possessed a tall, commanding physical presence that warranted development of grace and public humility. For example, although Washington was actually six feet, three and a half inches tall, he often told people he was only six feet tall. He could be excitable and demonstrated impatience during early campaigns, but learned to channel strong passions through carefully cultivated deportment. Washington aspired to embody the Catonic image of self-mastery portrayed in Joseph Addison's The Tragedy of Cato based upon the life of Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis. In correspondence with close associates, Washington often quoted Cato, who exemplified patriotic virtue.
Washington strategically hid his strong ambitions, demonstrated by his methodical study of political systems, world affairs, and competitive intelligence that might undermine the notion that he was anything but a reluctant politician. Further, he refused to take a salary for public service only applying to Congress to be reimbursed for expenses.
Prudence and industry, exemplified by Washington, became the ideal for masculine deportment and female virtue during the Early Republic. Martha Washington initiated "Drawing Rooms," receptions in the presidential residence on Friday evenings, where Tobias Lear introduced guests. Washington demonstrated his quiet acumen for current affairs by remembering faces and names of guests and exchanging a few cordial words with each visitor.
Washington read around ten newspapers each evening (he read newspapers to his wife and Tobias Lear just before his final illness) and accumulated a library of around nine hundred volumes. His ability to mask his "interests" to appear "disinterested" came to exemplify the perfect balance of moderation and detachment admired by later leaders during tumultuous times.
Reference Specialist, Special Collections Department
J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University
The Columbian Reader, 3rd ed., ed. Rudolphus Dickenson. Boston: R.O. & C. Williams, 1821.
Longmore, Paul K. The Invention of George Washington. Berkeley: University of California, 1988.