GEORGE WASHINGTON slept here, slept there, dined here, dined there, made his headquarters here, posted a garrison there . . . .
Anyone traveling in America is bound to encounter one reference after another to George Wasington. Counties, cities, streets, buildings, parks, lakes, bridges and schools bear his name. So does the most recognizable monument in the nation's capital, and so, too, does the capital. And this is his birth month.
(Alexandria will hold its traditional George Washington Birthnight Ball next Sunday at Gadsby's Tavern, the site of the ball in 1799 when George and Martha were guests of honor. And on Monday, the official holiday, a parade featuring full-dress colonial regisments, military bands and floats will march through the Old Town historic district.)
All of us are tied to Washington by the cord of history. We look for him at our national shrines, when we troop over the green hills of Valley Forge National Park, trying to imagine how it was when the winds whistled and the food ran out in that winter of 1777-78. We peer into a patch of canvas tent pitched on a field near Yorktown and know that once he was there, directing the battle that ended the American Revolution. We stand before a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota and study the contours of his great stony face.
Mount Vernon is the logical place to look for him, of course. He lived much of his life there, died there and is buired there. He was a meticulous man and would, no doubt, applaud the painstaking restoration of the plantation home that he loved so well. Still, it might unsettle him to see the throngs marching through its rooms.
On some days it seems that half the country is waiting to see The lines stretch from the rear of the house across the vast lawn, past gardens and walks, and down the hillside to buses and cars. Even those who know few details of his life sooner or later come to pay homage, perhaps believing that in seeing the house they are seeing the man -- dignified, orderly, prosperous, majestic and yet formidable.
He was all that, but also human. He was vain, imperious and often insufferable. He did not, for instance, like to be touched, and, on the day of his inauguration, refused to shake anyone's hand. As our first president, he ordered that people coming to see him should remain standing in his presence.
On a table in a room at Mount Vernon are his surveyor's tools. Long before he got into the building-a-nation business, he was a surveyor. Such work was a source of cash, and if there was one thing for which Washington retained a strong affection all his life, it was cash.
His diaries and letters are laced with references to money grudgeingly spent. He kept track in his account book of small loans to his relatives. He wrote down winnings and losses at cards. He gave up a military career because, as he noted in a letter to one of his brothers, "What did I get by it? My expenses borne. I have been on the losing order ever since I entered the service . . ." Did he really throw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River? All evidence suggests that he wouldn't have thrown a quarter across a bathtub unless it had a string tied to it.
He was also, early on, a ladies' man -- but with a purpose. He courted a girl named Sally Faixfax, whose father's land holdings were vast. She married another. He courted a teen-ager named Betsy Fauntleroy, whose father owned ships and shops. She married another, too. Finally, he married a widow named Martha Dandridge Custis. She had two children, $100,000 in cash, and some land -- about 17,000 acres.
He settled down on his Mount Vernon estate to what he thought would be the life of a rich Viriginia planter. He was 28, and a friend wrote of him as "straight as an Indian, standing 6 feet 2 inches and 175 pounds . . . His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength. He has a clear tho rather colorless pale skin which burns in the sun. He has a pleasing . . . commaning countenances, with dark brown hair which he wears in a cue."
His farm flourished and he became active in local politics. That, by every known precedent, should have been that. But it wasn't. Tea was dumped in the waters of Boston, and muskets were raised at a Massachusetts bridge. At age 43, Washington was appointed commander of the Continental Army. His previous military experience consisted largely of two battles in the French and Indian War, one of which he lost soundly. Still, John Adams, who had the liveliest mind and was the most influential loudmouth in New England, convinced the Continental Congress that a southerner might help pull the northern and southern colonies together in the war effort. Washington, being a Virginian with a wide reputation for integrity and firmness, was selected.
By the power of his personality, Washington took command. He was, by every standard, a leader of men, and all through the dark war years his courage was unflagging, his sense of duty unquestioned. Trapped in a freezing valley, he held together not only a ragged army of survivors, but the Revolution itself. In short, he was the stuff of myth. When he died, tall tales began to be told about him -- particularly stories with naive trimmings, like his chopping down a cherry tree, a fiction invented by a bookseller named Parson Weens. But Washington needed no faking of his passport to history. The truth was strong enough.
Now and then a piece of the myth might get tattered. We learn that he may have padded his army expense accounts. We read that he tried to silence his dissenters in the press with public prosecutions. We discover that, shortly after his marriage to Martha, he wrote a love letter to Sally Fairfax.
No matter. He entered our mythology as the Father of His Country. Calvin Coolidge, turning in his chair, looked out at the Washington Monument once and sighed: "He's still there."
So he is, and so we look for him.