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American History: December 1999 From the Editor

Originally published on Published Online: August 11, 1999 
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Thoughts on History

In our last issue we looked at an episode from George Washington's Revolutionary War days. This time author John Ferling examines the general's final years. Though less exciting than his military service, Washington's period of retirement offers its own small fascinations. Reading about Washington's daily routine is something like seeing a marble statue come to life and sit down to breakfast.

Today, when press and public alike routinely disparage politicians, it's surprising to see how much his contemporaries idolized George Washington. For example, when President Washington visited Massachusetts in 1789, newspapers fell over themselves to publish songs and poems about him. One paper's ode bore the title "The Godlike Washington," while another contributed "Glorious Father of the Glorious Age." Among its immortal lines:

Columbia's pride–the mighty chief draws nigh;

The boast of earth–and fav'rite of the sky!

Let ev'ry bard his tuneful numbers roll,

And fame's loud trump resound from pole to pole!

During a 1791 visit Washington made to the Richmond Academy in South Carolina, young Edmund Bacon delivered an address entitled "A Hero Great and Good." Bacon did it "with such distinctness of articulation; such propriety of pauses and emphasies; and in a manner so truly pathetic, as to keep that illustrious hero and a numerous collection of gentlemen in tears almost the whole time the little orator was speaking." (I should point out that back then "pathetic" meant an ability to move to pathos rather than the more negative connotation it carries now.)

How times have changed! Who writes odes about our leaders today? Yet even in this cynical age 200 years after his death, Washington resides on some rarified heights, paired with Lincoln as one of our nation's true immortals. Lincoln achieved his status in part through his martyrdom; had he lived to finish his second term, would he be remembered as fondly? Washington died of natural causes in his bed, however, without a dramatic ending to seal him in our hearts. Still, there he is at the top of the American pantheon, somewhat grim and peevish-looking perhaps–he'll never be a warm figure like Lincoln–yet untouchable and iconic.

Any number of factors have contributed to our changing responses to the country's leaders. Some of them are quite justified; after all, it's a good thing to question authority. Not even the Founding Fathers have escaped criticism. For instance, today it's difficult to reconcile our image of Washington, the man who fought for the nation's liberty, with the reality of him as a slave owner. (To his credit, it's apparently an issue with which Washington wrestled, and unlike Thomas Jefferson, he did free his slaves in his will.) This year even saw press reports that Washington may have fathered a child, West Ford, with a slave owned by his brother.

It's a story that I find hard to believe, although I must admit I didn't put much credence in a similar story about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings until recent DNA testing provided strong evidence to support the theory. Still, Jefferson was a more slippery character than Washington. "George Washington had an acute self-awareness of his importance to a young, untested nation," historian Jean B. Lee told the New York Times in a recent article about the alleged relationship. "He watched and modeled his behavior very carefully, and that would not comport with a liaison."

In this age of tarnished heroes, I certainly hope that's the case–and that this country is the only thing he fathered.

Tom Huntington, Editor, American History

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