A Tale of Two Georges

In Philadelphia, in what now is called Independence Hall, is preserved a Chippendale style chair crafted in 1779 by the cabinetmaker John Folwell, with a sun on the horizon carved at the top. For nearly three months in 1787, George Washington used this chair during the sessions of the Federal Convention. According to James Madison, whose feet would have dangled from it since, at 5’4” he was ten inches shorter than Washington, Benjamin Franklin mused: “I have often in the course of the session looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

On each consequent generation falls the obligation to keep that sun rising, a task which requires the virtues that animated and sustained the founders, chief among whom was the man described by Henry Lee III: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, [Washington] was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example everlasting.” Lee himself was a rising and setting sun: a Revolutionary War hero and ninth governor of Virginia and father of Robert E. Lee, he never recovered from three hours of torture and severe beating sustained in a Baltimore riot when he opposed the new nation’s involvement in the War of 1812. He died still traumatized six years later on Cumberland Island in the former colony named for the grandfather of King George III.

July 4 is about two Georges: Washington whose sun rose over a new nation and George III, whose sun became occluded in mental darkness, probably caused by a metabolic disorder called intermittent porphyrism, not helped by the loss of his American colonies the pain of which was somewhat mitigated by imperial expansion to the Orient.

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Both Georges, true to their name—since it means husbandman, which is how we get Virgil’s Georgics—loved few things more than farming. They took pride in developing their livestock, keeping a common affection for pigs. The king spent rewarding hours personally feeding them on his various estates. Washington’s first act as a burgess in 1765 was to introduce a bill restricting roaming hogs in Winchester. A Polish visitor to Mount Vernon, Julian Niemcewicz, said that its pigs were “of the Guinea type … and so excessively bulky that they can hardly drag their bellies on the ground.” An average of over 120 from the lot were slaughtered each year and, while not careful in counting the total, the president fed 125 of them on mash from his highly successful whiskey distillery, and so they must have been contented indeed. One set of the presidential dentures was partially made of pigs’ teeth.

Both were about the same height: Washington was 6’2” and it was said that in most gatherings the king was a head taller than anyone else. They were superior horsemen and hunters and were blue eyed with reddish brown hair. This was no surprise in the king, as he was a direct descendant of Owain Glyndwr of the Red Hair, the last native Prince of Wales. Lacking that connection, Washington was English to the bone and could boast that of the twenty-five barons (“sureties”) who signed Magna Carta, he was the direct heir of fourteen of the twenty four whose lines are known and was the fourth cousin of all of them. When the American painter Benjamin West told the king that Washington had spurned a crown after Yorktown to return to his plantation and crops, George III said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Neither George was a prude, but both were conscious of their role as moral exemplars. Washington had special solicitude for the orderliness of his troops. On March 10, 1778 during the Valley Forge encampment, he ordered that Lieutenant Fredrick Gotthold Enslin be ceremoniously disgraced for perjury and for attempting to commit sodomy with another soldier, John Monhort: “His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army never to return; The Drummers and Fifers to attend on the Grand Parade at Guard mounting for that Purpose.” This was lighter than Jefferson’s 1778 proposal of castration for crimes by men against nature in the new statutes of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and in the instance of women the penalty would be “cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.” It was, of course, not their only disagreement, and Jefferson did not attend Washington’s funeral in 1799. Their relationship was more tempestuous than that of the king with Fox and Pitt.

The Last Will of Washington freed his slaves upon the death of Martha, save for the Custis dower slaves perforce of law. As an expedient of war, the king proposed freeing sympathetic slaves in Virginia and abolished slavery in 1807, while Jefferson, in contempt for moral consistency, accused the king of promoting the slave trade. In 1787, at the urging of William Wilberforce the future Liberator, the king issued a Proclamation for the Suppression of Vice which was not welcomed with the enthusiasm he had hoped for, but in his own nest he was chaste and, in a manner not typical of the European courts, he was totally faithful to his pious Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and was an indulgent father to his fifteen children. It has been conjectured that Washington was sterile as the result of smallpox, and perhaps fortunately so, since the childless Father of the Nation founded no dynasty. Names such as Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton, and Bush were unknown to him.

Washington let drop his Augustan dignity in 1776 when he raged at the report that New Yorkers had torn down an equestrain statue of the king on Bowling Green in New York City. For Washington, it was a mob act unbefitting a civilized people. The statue had been sculpted by Joseph Wilton, modeled after that of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The New Yorkers had once nursed a deep affection for their enlightened monarch as they thanked him in 1766 for “the innumerable and singular Benefits received from our most gracious sovereign, since the Commencement of his auspicious Reign, during which they have been protected from the fury of a cruel, merciless, and savage Enemy and lately from the utmost Confusion and Distress, by the Repeal of the Stamp Act. In testimony therefore of their Gratitude, and the Reverence due to his Sacred person and Character … (the statue would) perpetuate to the latest posterity, the deep Sense This Colony has, of the eminent and singular Blessings derived from him, during His Most auspicious Reign.” Only the Coercive Acts, the Quebec Act, and the Prohibitory Act turned sentiment against the king who hitherto had been understood as misused by ill advisers. When it was torn down, some of the bronze was used for bullets, while the head was stolen and eventually ended up in the Mother Country in the possession of Lord Townshend as a melancholy memorial of the “Infamous Disposition of the Ungrateful people of this distressed Country.” The tail of the horse is preserved in the Museum of the City of New York. There is something of a parallel to this in the still extant statue of Washington on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. As George III in New York was a replication and exaltation of Marcus Aurelius, the Philosopher King, the sculptor Rudolf Siemering modeled Washington on his statue of Frederick the Great in Marienburg.

Neither the president nor the king was a religious mystic, a fact that does not gainsay Washington’s trust that the hand of Providence was palpable in diverse events he engaged. The king’s religious devotion was not typical of the astringent religious climate of his age. While his understanding of the coronation oath prevented him from removing residual penalties against Catholics, causing Pitt to resign in protest in 1801, he was generous to the Catholic Stuarts and funded Catholic institutions in Ireland if not enthusiastically. Claims that Washington became Catholic are risible, but his courteous philanthropy to Catholics was beyond the expectation of enlightened tolerance. He wrote to Catholics in 1790: “I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed… And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.”

Great Britain has had its own Declaration of Independence recently in the “Brexit” vote: for good or ill depending on which pub is polled.  The boldness of the voters and the consequent consternation of established powers have made a “World Turned Upside Down” as in the American Revolution. George Washington and George III knew that the tumult of their time was of a dimension deeper than diplomacy and could not be resolved by a solution in which the same God who had started everything was ignored in everything.

In the encyclical Longinqua in 1895, Pope Leo XIII extolled “the great Washington” and prompted the bishops of the United States: “without morality the State cannot endure—a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.” The two Georges, president and king, shared one assurance as the foundation of all moral liberty: not the rising sun but the risen Son whose light never sets, and they read it in the same translation of the Holy Bible:  “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8: 36).

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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