The public image of the Father of our Country is one of regard, and some believe, awe. Cool, reserved, aloof, distant – Houdon’s marble man stands in the Rotunda of Virginia’s State House.
George Washington: A Cultivated Persona
George Washington (1732-99) was born into prosperous and propertied Virginia gentry. He was the oldest of five children born to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, his second wife. Young George fully expected to follow in the footsteps of his older half-brothers, and be sent to England for higher education. Unfortunately, Augustine Washington died when George was only eleven. The fine classical education was not to be.
Laurence Washington, older by a dozen years, liked his half-brother, and took him under his wing. Mount Vernon, his fairly modest estate in northern Virginia would become a second home for George. The Fairfax family, Laurence’s propertied, pedigreed and very wealthy neighbors took an immediate liking to the young boy.
This was a whole new world opening for George Washington. While his own upbringing was certainly respectable and comfortable, he was deeply impressed by the elegance and sophistication of the cultured Fairfaxes. It was a lifestyle that the young adolescent wished to emulate. He became acutely aware of his manners, his presence and his behavior in general.
The Rules of Civility
George Washington’s Rules of Civility, a notebook penned in his own hand, was not, as some people believe, doctrines of his own creation. The book, dated 1745 (when George was twelve), is merely a copybook exercise. The “rules” themselves had been around for generations. They covered a wide range of behavior such as modesty in conversation and prudence in arguments. They also covered less sophisticated items such as refraining from finger-tapping or public belching.
What gives these widely reprinted Rules of Civility such importance, other than the fact that they were in Washington’s own excellent handwriting, is that the volume was kept. Childhood copybooks were then and are now, usually lost or destroyed. And when reading over these “rules,” it is easy to understand their importance in young Washington’s life. He would strive to keep them uppermost in his mind, since they truly were rules of civility and appropriate behavior in his time.
George Washington: Creating the Image
The lack of formal education would also be uppermost in Washington’s mind. Following some training as a surveyor, he joined the Virginia Militia, and by age twenty-five, had risen to Colonel, its highest rank. He aspired, however, to a commission in the British Army. Despite every effort on his part, the commission was not forthcoming. Impatient and resentful, George Washington decided to resign and become a planter. Mount Vernon had become his following the death of his older brother.
He had every intention of making the plantation into a great estate, and taking his own place in Virginia society as a gentleman farmer and property owner. When he married Martha Dandridge Custis, one of the wealthiest young widows in the colony, that place was assured. Her property dwarfed his, and practically guaranteed him a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
In Colonial Virginia in the 1760s, the aura of noblesse oblige was pervasive. If a man had property and wealth, he was expected to take a position on the governing board of the colony. George Washington would now not only be in the company of Virginia’s most propertied and pedigreed, but he would be with its most learned, most broadly educated, and, as history would evaluate, its best and brightest.
George Washington: Living the Image
If George Washington was daunted by the company he was keeping, it is unknown. Washington seldom tipped his private hand. What is known, however, is that he would always be aware of his own dearth of formal education. He could not begin to compete with men like the classically trained Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison or John Adams. He lacked the natural wit of Benjamin Franklin. He did not have the verbal spontaneity of Patrick Henry.
Perhaps remembering some of those long-ago copied Rules of Civility, he spoke little, unless he was sure of his subject. He listened mostly, and paid keen attention. He would always behave as he believed was proper. He would gain the respect and admiration of his fellows by his considered actions, rather than the words which never came that easily.
If he was aware that he was creating that aloof, touch-me-not, rise-above-it-all image, it is unknown. His remote attitude was never one of distain for his fellow-men. Most of his contemporaries considered him a friend, albeit never a close one.
George Washington: A Public Relations Marble Man
George Washington would zealously guard his reputation for the rest of his life. He always maintained a physical distance. One anecdote tells of a time in Philadelphia when one of its elite citizens boasted to his fellows that he was an intimate friend of the President. The next time he was in Washington’s company, he placed his arm around him in a gesture of camaraderie. The withering look he instantly received from George Washington spoke volumes. A handshake was proper. A pat on the back was not.
When the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was commissioned to create the lifesize statue of America’s first president, the artist in him absorbed that innate dignity of the man and transferred it to the monument. And while it is said to be sculpted exactly to Washington’s measurements, he is always perceived as larger than life.
Boller, Paul F. Jr.– Presidential Anecdotes – Oxford University Press, 1981
Chadwick, Bruce – The General and Mrs. Washington –Sourcebooks, 2007
Randall, Willard Sterne – Washington: A Life – 1997, Galahad Books