Inventing the Myth of George Washington

A popular myth is that George Washington repeatedly turned down an offer to become king of America. In reality this did not happen. Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory, by Edward Lengel, punctures myths about Washington and highlights some of the burdens that national leaders, particularly presidents, carry. It’s somehow reassuring that even Washington was demonized by political opponents. And that like politicians today, he was very image-conscious –believing that it was dangerous to show an unguarded, vulnerable face to the public.

After his death, ministers invented the myth that he was deeply religious, knew the Bible by heart, and was “God’s chosen instrument” on earth. In fact, Washington infrequently attended church and avoided referring to Jesus Christ. But a heroic image of him was used to manipulate people. To reject conventional Christianity was to “insult the ashes of a man, whom you are forever bound to love and revere,” one minister railed.

Predictably, political opponents such as Thomas Paine who demonized him in life, glorified him in death as “perfect.” Federalists claimed, without much evidence, that Washington was one of their own.

And Parson Weems, the “father of popular history,” manufactured many stories about George Washington’s relationship with his father that were not based on any documentary evidence. The most famous of these, of course, is the story of chopping down the cherry tree and choosing not to lie about it to his father.

The first chapter was published in The New York Times. Excerpt:

“In the summer of 1795, halfway through Washington’s second term as president of the United States, a political crisis erupted over the Jay Treaty with Great Britain….Republican newspapers, blaming him for instigating the Jay Treaty, cursed him for “his cold, aloof, arrogant manner; his lack of intelligence and wisdom; and his love of luxury and display.”

“Thomas Paine, who resented Washington’s refusal to secure his release from a French prison some years earlier, penned a vicious “open letter” slamming the president’s “egotism” and “fraudulent” character and discounting his role in winning the Revolutionary War. The Aurora—the most fanatical of all the Republican newspapers—joined in the abuse by denouncing the president’s “self-love” and painting him as a softheaded blunderer…

“…Washington grew almost fanatically self-conscious, regulating every atom of his dress, speech, and public conduct with nearly ruthless control. In the process, he became two men: a private, carefully hidden Washington, whom no one except Martha ever really met, and a public, meticulously cultivated Washington, on display for popular consumption.

“A devotee of classical drama, Washington was no stranger to playacting. He employed it deliberately. In his worldview, Providence—the Great Playwright—assigned each man a role in life that he must play out uncomplainingly to the end.”

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