We know just about all there is to know about The Father of Our Country, but we're still not ready to admit very much of it.
This being the 250th year since his birth, the Smithsonian has mounted a vast exhibit on George Washington at the Museum of American History, but it is bloodless. "Washington: A Figure Upon the Stage" has everything from George's christening blanket to one of Martha's corsets, yet one comes away with little sense of the man .
He was, even by the testimony of solemn and respectful biographers, a hell of a fellow. But we have sanctified him, and bored our schoolchildren to despair with him, for so many generations that hardly any of us gives a damn about him except as a symbol.
Now his image is fixed by the puerile Gilbert Stuart portraits and the Parson Weemsish pap that passes for history in our schools. In his own time, before his apotheosis, some few artists saw him a little more clearly, as is shown by another new exhibit, "George Washington: An American Icon," at the National Portrait Gallery. It's a modest effort compared to American History's extravaganza, but far more penetrating.
Charles Willson Peale's 1780 mezzotint shows a man of substance and complexity, with suggestions of arrogance and craftiness, perhaps even cruelty. Scores of other prints in that show, ranging from crude to accomplished and mostly pirated rather than done from life, at least hint that there is a real person between and behind the engraver's lines.
But anyone in search of the living, breathing First President would do better to read "George Washington Reconsidered" in the February issue of Washingtonian magazine. It is, lamentably, the last piece written by Dick Dabney, a rare essayist who probably had not even reached full stride when he died at 42 last November 16.
Dabney respected Washington's indisputable greatness but was even more drawn to his "raw power. It is this Washington, a brawling, passionate, cunning, utterly reckless Washington -- the Washington who started the French and Indian War at 22 and who was known as 'the stallion of the Potomac' -- who is the father of our country."
"Not a little is at stake when you say that George Washington was not a perfect creature," Dabney wrote. "It still is impossible to write objectively of George Washington without raising a storm."
The Smithsonian, of course, is not in the business of making waves, so its exhibit tiptoes around such things as his relationship with his mother, Mary Ball Washington:
"Although his mother was often a trial to George, he was careful during his lifetime to honor the filial obligations which were mandatory to a member of the gentry," says one of the exhibit captions. "When she died, he refused to part with her small legacies to him, saying he considered them 'mementos of parental affection in the last solemn act of life,' and that he 'set a value on them much beyond their intrinsic worth.' "
Dabney: "During the last 30 years of his mother's life, at a time when he was becoming one of the wealthiest men in America, he wrote her only once. Nor did he pay attention to the fact that she was destitute until she applied to the Virginia legislature for welfare. . . She sent for him on her deathbed because he was her favorite son and because, like almost everybody else who ever saw him, she instinctively liked him. But he did not go. He had her buried in an unmarked grave."
It would be unseemly to pluck more paragraphs from an essay that should be read entire. In contrast to the Smithsonian efforts, Dabney will make you thirst for more about this giant of our history.