Washington and Lee University

Virginians on Olympus. Iv. George Washington: America’s First Demigod
Marshall W. Fishwick


1 The plea appears in a speech Wise gave at the unveiling of a copy of Houdon’s “Washington” on the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, Virginia, on July 4, 1856, and is reproduced in the Southern Literary Messenger for 1856 (Vol. XXIII, No. 1, p. 1 f.)

2 A good summary of Washington’s European reputation may be found in Gilbert Chinard’s chapter (15) on “The American Dream” in the Literary History of the United States, edited by Spiler, Thorp, Johnson, and Canby (New York, Macmillan, 1948).

3 See the author’s Bibliography of the American Hero (Charlottesville, Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1950), for lists of books dealing with heroes in various centuries and from several academic viewpoints.

4 Mandell Creighton, “Heroes,” in Historical Lectures and Addresses (London, Longmans Green, 1904), p. 306.

5 For contemporary British opinion of Washington see the London Chronicle for October 24, 1775, English Magazine for Augst, 1777, Gentleman’s Magazine for August, 1778, Monthly Magazine or British Register for March, 1800, and European Magazine for March and April, 1800.

6 Ralph H. Gabriel points out this fact, and discusses Washington’s symbolic importance in his chapter (8) on “Pre-Sumter Symbolism” in The Course of American Democratic Faith (New York, Ronald Press, 1940).

7 This state of affairs is analyzed in Sydney Fisher’s The Legendary and Mythmaking Process in Histories of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, 1912), reprinted from the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, LI, No. 204, for April–June, 1912.

8 After visiting Weem’s home in 1815 James Kemper reported that his son Jesse was “exceeding forward,” and that when his Mother complained, “he replied with airs of levity and rashness that he was determined to go on, and that the Scripture required us to ‘leave Father and Mother to follow Christ.’ ” See author’s “Journey Through the Wilderness,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 57, No. 2, April 1949, pp. 133–139.

9 Typical of the adverse comments is that of Allan Nevins, who declares in the Encyclopedia of Social Science (Vol. VII, p. 386) that “Weems’ Life of George Washington long exercised a deplorable influence upon popular history.”

10 Edward H. O’Neill, A History of American Biography (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935), p. 157.

11 O’Neill, op. cit., p. 164.

12 Quoted in Grace E. King’s Mount Vernon on the Potomac, a History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union (New York, 1929), pp. 19 and 20. For a similar account from the pen of a most devoted Virginian, see Thomas Nelson Page’s History and Preservation of Mt. Vernon (New York, 1910).

13 This contention is amply documented in William A. Bryan’s “George Washington: Symbolic Guardian of the Republic, 1850–1861,” in the William and Mary Quarterly, third series, VII, 1, January 1950, pp. 53–63.

14 Margaret Rowe, George Washington—The Legend, unpublished Master of Arts thesis submitted to the faculty of Columbia University, May, 1919, p. 12 and 13.

15 This story may be found in George Washington Parke Custis’ Life and Times of George Washington (New York, Derby and Jackson, 1860), p. 303 f. It is recounted in Rowe, op. cit., p. 25 f.

16 Woodworth goes on to say that Washington’s spirit will return and give counsel to America when it is needed—which brings to mind the legend that King Arthur will return to usher in the millennium, or that Charlemagne will come again when his great white beard thrice encircles the stone table before him in Untersburg. Other parallels may be drawn between Washington and earlier European heroes, indicating that for any great man a certain pattem exists in the legends about him.

17 Even people who were themselves aware that Washington did not always act in a story-book fashion affirmed the legends. For example, the Rev. Lee Massey, Rector of Washington’s church, declared that Washington not only attended church regularly, but listened with such reverence to the sermons that the rector was profoundly moved. Yet Washington’s diary shows that he did not attend church every Sunday, and that he not only made purchases and wrote letters, but even went fox-hunting, on the Sabbath. Stories of his religiosity and piety abound in Washington literature. A favorite one holds that when news came that General Gates was plotting his overthrow, Washington fell to the ground and with clasped hands and moist eyes raised his eyes to heaven in prayer. (See S. G. Arnold’s Life of George Washington [New York, Mason and Lane, 1840], p. 117 f.)

18 Armistead L. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee . . . (New York, J. M. Stoddard and Co., 1886), p. 87. Douglas Southall Freeman thinks Lee probably reflected, after he took command of the Confederate forces, that Washington, too, led a rebel army. See his R. E. Lee, A Biography (New York, Scribners, 1934–36), I, 419–20, 440, 465.

19 Charles Wilson Peale painted the first portrait about which there is no question of authenticity in 1772. Representing Washington as a colonel of the Virginia militia, the portrait now hangs in the Lee Chapel at Lexington, Virginia. In the first months of the Revolution Washington engravings appeared throughout Europe, most of which are traceable to two prints issued in London in 1775. Three years later Voltaire ordered a Washington medal struck in Paris, but it employed a fictitious head of Washington. John Trumbull, a military aide of Washington, did an engraving of Washington in 1781, and numerous paintings after 1790; Stuart did not have his first sitting from Washington until 1795. See Justin Winsor’s article on “The Portraits of Washington” in the Appendix of his Narrative and Critical History of America (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1884–9), Vol. VII.

20 Winsor, op. cit., p. 571.

21 In this connection it is interesting to note how successful artists and writers have been at portraying a true-to-life Abraham Lincoln. His personality and achievements have not frightened and awed them as have Washington’s—an important reason, no doubt, for Lincoln’s rapid ascent as a demigod during the years when Washington’s reputation was waning.

22 See Samuel B. Shirk’s The Characterization of George Washington in American Plays Since 1875 (Philadelphia, John Correll Co., 1949).

23 These are Bowen’s The Soldier from Virginia, Babcock’s The Heart of George Washington, Pier’s The Young Man from Mount Vernon and Fast’s The Unvanquished. See John R. Frey’s “George Washington in American Fiction” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, LV (October, 1947), 342 f.

24 W. E. Woodward, George Washington, the Image and the Man (New York, Boni and Liveright, 1926), p. 447.

25 Report of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission (Washington, Govemment Printing Office, 1932), V, p. xii.

26 In an early novel about the War Ellen Glasgow has a mountaineer say, “I didn’t see how I was goin’ to fire my musket, till all of a jiffy a thought jest jumped into my head and sent me bangin’ down that hill. ‘Them folks have set thar feet on ole Virginny,” was what I thought. ‘They’ve set thar feet on ole Virginny, and they’ve got to take ’em off damn quick!’ ” The Battle Ground (New York, Doubleday Page, 1902), p. 323.

27 Michael V. O’Shea, Public Education in Virginia, A Report to the Educational Commission of Virginia (Richmond, State Printing Office, 1928), p. 9.

28 Virginius Dabney, “An Approach to Virginia,” Saturday Review of Literature, XXVI (Jan. 23, 1943), p. 18.

29 James Branch Cabell, The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck (New York, R. M. McBride, 1915), p. 111.

30 In this connection it is interesting to note that Stratford, one of the Lee ancestral homes, is now being run as a functioning plantation and that the land of George Washington’s brothers around Ransom, West Virginia, is part of a 6,000-acre estate which is managed in a way reminiscent of colonial plantation days.

31 Honorable Henry T. Wicklham, Address . . . , Senate Document No. 10, 1940 (Richmond, State Printing Office, 1940), p. 14.