The third Monday in February—latterly called “Presidents’ Day” because of Lincoln’s birthday on the 12th—is legally Washington’s birthday. Of course, his actual birthday is February 22, and I am old enough to remember getting off from school on that day, whenever it fell. But in 1971 Congress’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, banishing this secular feast as well as Memorial, Labor, Columbus, and Veterans’ Days to the nearest Monday (although the Vets won a reprieve in 1978). In this writer’s humble opinion, this had the effect of reducing these civic holidays to mere days off and emptying them of much of the meaning they possessed.
Regardless, Washington—like Columbus—has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. Old George was a slaveowner. And white. And Southern. And male. Now, unlike Columbus (with whom persistent family legend claims we Coulombes have a blood relation), I do have reasons to dislike our first president. Being of French-Canadian descent, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the memory of the man who started the French and Indian War that ended in my forefathers’ conquest by the British and Anglo-Americans. Nevertheless, I am far from happy with the potshots being taken at him, not least because (as with any older person) it reminds of how far we have gone since my youth.
In those days, as it had been since virtually his death, Washington was almost a demigod. The Apotheosis of Washington graced the interior of the Capitol’s dome, as it does today, and his image remains on the quarter, the dollar bill, and the Purple Heart. Our nation’s capital and a state were named after him, as were 30 counties, one Louisiana parish, at least 32 towns, and countless streets and squares across the nation. From the Washington Monument to Mount Rushmore to the Court of Liberty in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, innumerable statues and memorials to the first president dotted the 50 states.
His picture was omnipresent in schools. Washington’s home at Valley Forge was a major shrine, while lesser sites—such as Federal Hall in New York where he was inaugurated, his birthplace, boyhood home, ancestral manor in England, and many wartime headquarters—functioned as subsidiary temples. Thanks to his extensive travels up and down the thirteen original states (including his military campaigns and presidential tours), dozens if not hundreds of buildings pride themselves in Washington having slept there. A somewhat lesser number of churches in the same areas treasure a pew he sat in.
Indeed, America’s three great religious groups all claim him. The Episcopal Church—in which he was baptized, married, and buried—maintains a Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge. The Freemasons have always capitalized on his involvement with their Order; their museum in his honor at Alexandria, Virginia, is really worth seeing. And not only did Catholics point with pride to the favors he showed them, but they furnished the hotly debated account of his deathbed conversion by a Maryland Jesuit.
Yankees treasured his fame as much as Southerners treasured it. Lincoln would invoke the general even as Washington’s equestrian form graced the Great Seal of the Confederate States of America. During my boyhood, he was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” To this day, the accompanying caption to the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, at New York’s Met Museum labels that icon “a subject of veneration.” In one of his funniest films, Lou Costello finds heaven “Closed for Washington’s Birthday.”
Washington was far more than a mere mythic historical figure. While the cultus of the “Father of His Country” may have been wildly overblown, George was nevertheless a most remarkable man. If he was not the most able tactician who ever lived, he still managed to hold an army together despite horrendous odds. If Loyalists saw him as a traitor to his king, he did not use (as he easily could have) his troops to become ruler himself. Despite Washington’s universal popularity when called to head the newly reconstituted United States government, he did not make himself president for life. Informed of this development by the painter Benjamin West, George III himself declared that it “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living,” and that he “thought him the greatest character of the age.”
And if he did not actually cut down the cherry tree and refuse to lie about it, he was nevertheless well-mannered and affable, even to his social inferiors. The heroes his detractors esteem were far inferior, both as historic figures and as men.
Although, as mentioned, his cultus was no doubt excessive, it was—and, to some degree, remains—one of the few durable ties that helped bind this strange and paradoxical land of ours together. Washington Irving’s last major work was a multi-volume biography of his namesake (whom he had encountered as a boy), and both the Nazis of the German-American Bund and the communists of the American International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War felt constrained to invoke him as their patron saint.
Without an organizing principle to replace the American civil religion of which Washington worship was an integral part, current attacks on the first president’s memory—taken together with those on Columbus, the Confederate monuments, Kate Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and God alone knows who else to come—cannot help but act as a powerful corrosive on the country itself. Plymouth Rock was just daubed with red spray paint last week, as were the nearby Pilgrim Maiden statue, the National Monument to the Forefathers, and a bench honoring the daughters of the colonists who arrived in Plymouth in 1623 on the ship Anne.
As one who loves these United States deeply, I cannot but loathe the developments. Whatever the historical faults of the above-mentioned historical figures, they deserve better—as does General Washington.
Image: from The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi