IS IT POSSIBLE to find George Washington again 250 years after his birth? Or is he lost forever inside his legend, half-myth, half-joke, an abstraction distant as a Caesar, a stone president?
Today he comes through to us mostly by way of the Gilbert Stuart portraits, which didn't look like him at all (he and Stuart couldn't stand each other), and the picture on the money, and the newspaper ads for Washington's Birthday sales of everything from cars to cherry pies (the thing about the cherry tree never happened), and an unending series of cartoons and skits that derive from Stan Freberg's brilliant 1960s record "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America" with its scandalous--and hilarious--view of the man.
He never had wooden teeth, either. No one knows where that notion came from. His dentures were of the finest ivory.
So what was he like really?
What did he look like?
The family always favored the Houdon bust now in the museum at Mount Vernon. It was made on the spot and was even fired in the kitchen oven. It suggests the kindness that is missing from the 70 or more Stuart portrait versions.
"His head is well shaped though not large but is gracefully poised on a superb neck," wrote a Virginia officer. "A large and straight rather than a prominent nose; blue-gray penetrating eyes, which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow . . . A pleasing, benevolent, though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair, which he wears in a cue . . . His features are regular and placid, with all the muscles of his face under perfect control, though flexible and expressive of deep feeling when moved by emotions. In conversation he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential and engaging."
Others found his eyes "pensive" and "more attractive than sparkling, but their expression is benevolent, noble and self-poised." Many speak of the calm firmness, the gentle smile, the simplicity and gravity of his manner. He was 6 feet 2 and 209 pounds in his prime, wide-shouldered, neat-waisted but broad across the hips, a big-boned man, straight as an Indian, with huge hands and feet, and the scars of smallpox on his face.
History leaves us rather little of George Washington's youth. He was 40 before anyone painted his portrait. He first began to draw attention as a soldier, a hero of the French and Indian War, leading his men out of the Turtle Creek disaster though he was so crippled by dysentery he had to use a pillow for a saddle. He had two horses shot from under him that time, had four bullets pierce his clothes. When in 1774 the First Continental Congress was casting about for a commander to fight its revolution, delegate Washington was the natural choice.
Note that he was the only man at the convention wearing a uniform. Surely he hadn't put it on just to look smart. He must have known it would draw attention to him when the subject of war came up.
Is that sly? Or just subtle? Ambitious certainly.
As a general he could be stern. He once urged Congress to allow a maximum of 500 strokes with the cat-o'-nine-tails. The average sentence was 39 strokes. But his reputation was for fairness. As North Callahan reports in "George Washington: Soldier and Man," he tried persuasion first, then admonition and finally court-martial and the lash. It was a harsh time for the citizen-soldiers: swearers got 25 lashes, drunks 50 lashes. Deserters were excuted summarily.
At the same time Washington cared enough about his men's well-being to order smallpox inoculations for his army, suffering in winter quarters at Morristown, N.J., and for the local populace. It was a radical step: Edward Jenner was still experimenting with inoculation.
Washington's courage was unquestioned and spectacular. So was his luck. At Quaker Meeting House he rallied his fleeing soldiers, waving his hat and galloping to within 30 paces of the redcoats. For a moment the British simply gaped at the man on the big white horse. Then they fired a volley, and he vanished in the smoke, but when it blew away he was still there, untouched. The panicked Americans stopped in their tracks and began to return the fire.
"Just then Washington galloped across the field right between the two opposing forces, waving his hat and shouting at his soldiers to follow him," writes Callahan. "Again his words were magic. Again the militia and Continentals sallied out." Fifty yards from the British, he halted, and again was caught in crossfire between the armies, and again was unharmed. The British line broke and as the Americans raced after them, Washington joined them, shouting, "It's a fine fox chase, my boys!"
His generalship has been questioned by experts: on tactics, strategy and plain leadership, and probably, had we lost the war, his reputation would have been as low as any defeated general's. But the point was that he never lost sight of his basic responsibility, which was to keep an army in the field, any army, any field, year after year, however long it took to break the British will.
If he was humorless, he was also generous. He never stooped to office politics, and when some inferiors on his staff tried to undercut him by subtle slanders he did nothing, bided his time, let them trap themselves by their own presumption. At the right moment, one cutting letter (with a copy to Congress: generous doesn't mean ingenuous) did the trick.
As Washington's fame grew, and particularly after he became president, he seemed to strike people as remote and formal. Alexander Hamilton bet Robert Morris a fine dinner for 12 that he couldn't pat the president on the back. Morris went up, laid a hand on Washington's shoulder, and said cordially, "My dear general, how good it is to see you looking so well."
Washington turned, carefully lifted the hand from his shoulder as if it were a caterpillar and walked away without a word.
Yet at the Fraunces Tavern in New York, saying goodbye to his generals in 1783, he cried. He threw his arms around Henry Knox, his youngest general, and kissed him on the cheek.
Now, what do we make of that?
We are still dealing with a public figure, a man so celebrated that all his effects, his clothes and shoehorn and toothbrush, even his sunglasses, were put away for posterity as a matter of course when he died. The legend had already swallowed him up.
But his letters show another man. Just after he married the Widow Custis, he wrote that he hoped to retire at Mount Vernon. That was in 1759. His whole career was still waiting for him. After the war he often talked of getting back home. He could think of nothing else. He came from a short-lived family, by the way, and didn't expect to make it past 50 or so.
"The hour of my resignation is fixed at 12 this day," he happily wrote Baron von Steuben on Dec. 23, 1783. In August 1788 he wrote a friend, "I have no wish which aspires beyond the humble and happy lot of living and dying a private citizen on my own farm."
Eight months later he was inaugurated president of the United States.
Was ever a great national leader so fascinated with retirement?
Perhaps, then, the place to look for George Washington is at Mount Vernon. He was, after all and above all, a farmer.
Though he was home hardly half of the 40 years he owned the plantation, he loved the life. His library was full of treatises on agriculture, and he used all the latest English techniques and tools that he read about, including crop rotation and advanced methods of plowing and fertilizing. He kept a 10-acre plot divided into sections where he tested various manures, oyster shells and other fertilizers, keeping meticulous records of every experiment.
Once he built a seeding plow from a drawing in an English book but didn't know how fast the seeds should pour from the automatic sower. So he sat down and calculated the number of red clover seeds in a bushel (4,863,500 if you must know). He did the same for seven other crops and made a chart showing exactly how many pounds of each (plus chaff) would be needed to sow an acre.
People sent him seeds from all over the world, and he planted them and kept records. He was always fooling with tropical fruits and trees, remembered from his youthful trip to Barbados. He planted the box hedges that still stand, and many of the ancient trees that once ranged in pairs down the lawn. He also had to cope with changes in the local economy. The shift from tobacco to wheat and other foods, for instance, affected the efficiency of his work force. In a word, it made slavery uneconomical.
The moral aspects of slavery, part of the world to which he was born, bothered him increasingly, leading him to use his influence privately against it and to free his 300 slaves -- most of whom had come from the Custis menage -- in his will. Even before the war he resolved never again to buy or sell a slave. But he did little about the question while in public office. The constitutional convention was split on the subject as it was.
Signs of the man are everywhere in the mansion. He himself designed the addition of an extra floor and the south wing, leaving behind a charming small unresolved problem: a window blocked by a staircase. Paintings of local landscapes, one of them recognizably the Great Falls on the Potomac, reflect his individuality in a time when landscapes weren't chic. Woodwork is of pine with grain painted on it, and not because Washington couldn't afford oak. It was a sophisticated attempt at a rustic effect.
In the master bedroom is his trunk, bought secondhand, with his brass plate nailed over someone else's initials. In the study is a wall full of books: More than half the 900 volumes in the inventory have been obtained by Mount Vernon, most recently a set of Lord Chesterfield's letters. Washington read military books, religious, travel and history books, Tom Paine's "Common Sense," the Tatler, Shakespeare, Fanny Burney's "Evelina" -- but few other novels.
Also in the study is a shaving table with bowl and brush.
He got up with the sun, clumped down the back stairs to wash and shave in the study, thus not disturbing Martha and also having to light only one fire. Then he wrote letters. He wrote a lot of letters. Like 80 volumes' worth.
After a 7 o'clock breakfast, "I mount my horse and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces come, as they say, out of respect to me . . . The usual time of sitting at Table, a walk, and Tea, brings me within the dawn of Candlelight, previous to which . . . I will retire to my writing Table . . . "
He liked women, loved to dance. He must have smiled then, false teeth or no. ("Alas! our dancing days are no more," he wrote with wry good humor in his last year). He called Martha "my dearest" in his letters and during the war once rode 70 miles out of his way to visit her at home for a couple of days. His servants were concerned to see the battle fatigue on his face.
One imagines him in his final two years, truly retired at last, sitting in a favorite spot on that magnificent veranda at Mount Vernon, the contented squire, gazing far across the broad Potomac.
But never for very long. An energetic and vital man always, despite the malaria and pleurisy and influenza and wartime hardships, he was a superb rider, fox hunter and racer. On the way to Yorktown he rode 120 miles in two days, arriving at the battle scene a good day ahead of his much younger staff.
He was riding the bounds, in fact, when he caught quinsy on a chill Dec. 12, 1799, just weeks short of the new century. He died in two days, at age 67.