Popular culture's understanding of George Washington is driven as much by myth as fact, given Washington's pivotal role in America's infancy. Examining cultural understandings of Washington reveal a series of collective memories, hopes, and fears of the American populace. Early praise for Washington emerged in a context of political resentment and military fervor. After the war, Washington's image shifted from military hero to moral leader.
Popular culture's understanding of Washington began with his military career. Emanual Gottlieb Letuze's painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware River famously depicted Washington valiantly, though inaccurately, leading troops in the Battle of Trenton. There was little drama when Washington formally resigned from the military in 1783, but popular myths soon emerged that Washington declined repeated offers to become king of the United States. A famous depiction of Washington's military resignation was published in 1799, on the cover of the inaugural issue of Philadelphia Magazine and Review, which portrayed Washington giving up his military command and returning to field and plow, akin to Cincinnatus. 1
Such imagery of Washington resonated with Americans because it fit well with the political ideals of the new nation, which sought a limited government with representatives who came to power through elections, rather than bloodlines. Popular understandings of Washington portrayed him as a rare and virtuous leader, who in contrast to the British monarchy was more interested in promoting individual freedom than exercising absolute power. Washington did not seek to correct these or other positive popular views held about him.2
Washington developed a cold while riding in December of 1799 and died soon after. Some claimed that Washington mastered death, as he mastered life, and chose the exact moment of his death. Others claimed that Washington personified physical strength to such a degree that even in death, he looked very much alive, and his body would not decay given his divine power.3
As the Father of America, Washington was heralded as the political savior of the nation for delivering America from the bondage of Great Britain, akin to Moses delivering the children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. Verses from the final chapter of Deuteronomy that described the death of Moses were frequently used in New England eulogies to illuminate the significance of Washington's passing. Each man was called upon to do great things as part of God's plan through military and political service in the face of tyranny.4 The Apotheosis of Washington, the famous fresco on the dome of the U.S. Capitol, depicts Washington surrounded by thirteen maidens, one for each colony, as he ascends to heaven and becomes a god.
In the two centuries after his death, Washington has been remembered differently at different times, reflecting larger social and cultural currents. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans remembered Washington as the personification of virtue; a man of remoteness and gentility. Washington led America's revolt without astonishing assaults or victories. Rather, victory achieved victory through sound judgment, moderation, and persistence. The nation's first president was heavily identified with the well-being of the new country.5 The 1790s were full of division and uncertainty. Washington was a living icon that all competing interests sought to affiliate with in serving as a link between the revolutionary past and nation future.6
One of the most common popular myths surrounding Washington was the fable written by Parson Weems in his 1809 biography about a young Washington unable to lie to his father about chopping down a cherry tree. The number of biographies published on Washington gradually declined in the decades after the Civil War as the country sought to heal itself. Washington still remained the most chronicled president until the early twentieth century when he was surpassed by Abraham Lincoln. As the country gradually became more democratic and less aristocratic, Washington was increasingly viewed as an ordinary and imperfect man who everyday people could identify with.7
Popular understandings of George Washington focused on his role as military leader, first president, and the importance of his contributions to the development of the American political tradition. Fascination has centered upon Washington's willingness to give up tremendous power for larger political ideals and the sense of moral obligation. The embellishment present in several popular accounts of Washington demonstrates the extent to which Americans laude this unique and important leader in both fact and legend.
Luke Perry, Ph.D.
1. Laura Auricchio, "Two Versions of General Washington's Resignation: Politics, Commerce, and Visual Culture in 1790s Philadelphia," Eighteenth Century Studies 44, no. 3 (2011): 383.
2. Edward Lengel, Inventing George Washington: America's Founder in Myth and Memory (New York: Harper, 2011), 9-10.
3. Ibid., 11-13.
4. Robert Hay, "George Washington: American Moses," American Quarterly 21, no. 4 (1969): 781-787.
5. Auricchio, 383.
6. Max Cavitch, "The Man That Was Used Up; Poetry, Particularity, and the Politics of Remembering George Washington," American Literature 75, no. 2 (June 2003): 252.
7. Barry Schwartz, "Social Change and Collective Memory: The Democratization of George Washington," American Sociological Review 56, no. 2 (April 1991): 221-225.
Auricchio, Laura. "Two Versions of General Washington's Resignation: Politics, Commerce, and Visual Culture in 1790s Philadelphia," Eighteenth Century Studies 44, no. 3, 2011: 383-400.
Cavitch, Max. "The Man That Was Used Up: Poetry, Particularity, and the Politics of Remembering George Washington," American Literature 75, no. 2, June 2003: 247-274.
Hay, Robert. "George Washington: American Moses," American Quarterly 21, no. 4, 1969: 780-791.
Lengel, Edward. Inventing George Washington: America's Founder in Myth and Memory. New York: Harper, 2011
Schwartz, Barry. "Social Change and Collective Memory: The Democratization of George Washington," American Sociological Review 56, no. 2, April 1991: 221-236.
Schwartz, Barry. "George Washington and the Whig Conception of Heroic Leadership," American Sociological Review 48, no. 1, February 1983: 18-33.