Virginians on Olympus. IV. George Washington: America’s First Demigod
Marshall W. Fishwick
Note: The following is taken from the January 1951 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 59), pp. 51–71.
VIRGINIANS ON OLYMPUS
MARSHALL W. FISHWICK
IV. George Washington: America’s First Demigod
First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,
he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private
life. . . . His example was as edifying to all around him as were the
effects of that example lasting.
REPRESENTATIVE HENRY LEE,
“Oration Before Congress,”
December 26, 1799
WHEN the eighteen ton statue of Washington now in Richmond’s Capitol Park arrived from Amsterdam in 1858, no horses were employed to transport it. A team of human beings drew the massive figure to its site, for Virginians would not accord this privilege to animals. So highly venerated had the first president become in the Old Dominion during the 1850’s that Governor Henry A. Wise had felt it necessary to say of Washington:
I came to call you to a study of his life—to search for the secret springs of his action and his success. . . . Reverence for his memory has mistaken the uses of his fame, until his example has been so extolled by almost impious errors of praise as to make imitation by our youth almost hopeless. 1
It was much too late, however, to plead for a purely historical conception of the Father of his Country; Washington had become not only a symbol, but a demigod, for the American people. They were no longer concerned with mere facts. The criticism that had been raised against him during his presidency had been silenced, and the shortcomings which many of his contemporaries were well aware of had been forgotten. Virginia was no more devoted to the memory of her most famous native son than were other states of the Union. Massachusetts’ favorites on, Daniel Webster, expressed the view of many in that commonwealth when he said, “America has furnished the world the character of Washington! And if our institutions had done nothing else, that alone would have entitled them to the respect of mankind.” Unreserved praise for Washington had become by the middle of the century a standard American attribute.
This adulation was not limited to America: it flourished mightily on the other side of the Atlantic. This was especially true in France, which had furnished many volunteers for Washington’s army, as well as the financial aid which had made success possible. When Napoleon Bonaparte (who was at the time First Consul) heard of Washington’s death, he ordered a week of mourning for France, and had the American’s eulogy delivered in the “Temple of Mars.” 2
To Europeans Washington became the very embodiment of resistance to depotism and tyranny. The writings of Alfieri and Botta in Italy, or of Byron, Thackery, and Arnold in England, reflect this clearly. Kosciuzko spread his fame in Poland, and patterned his campaigns on Washington’s during the Polish Revolution. Translations of the Farewell Address were numerous throughout South America, where Washington’s picture was often displayed along side that of Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator. The Washington legend was an intrinsic part of American nationalism, but it was much more. Washington was a world figure; and around him sprang up many of the traditions and tales which characterize the hero throughout European history.
The only adequate framework for the study of American heroes is that of western civilization. With this wide perspective we can see how our great men grow directly out of a tradition that goes back many centuries. In classic times heroes were god-men; in the Middle Ages they were saints; in the Renaissance they were universal men; in the nineteenth century they were the “gentleman and Christian” type; in the twentieth century, they are the “self-made men.” 3 One of the many things which the settlers of the New World brought over from Europe was the hero theory of history, and it has flourished mightily from colonial times until today.
From the psychological standpoint there is obviously some validity to the long-persisting hero theory. In dealing with this fact a leading British historian has pointed out:
We know that truth is ineffective unless it is applied by a person. When we look back upon the past, we do not want to discover a truth or an idea apart from a person, nor can we tolerate a person except as expressing an idea or a truth. This, I take it, is the reason why we are always anxious to discover heroes or great men. The search is inevitable, for it corresponds to the facts of human nature and expresses a profound truth. 4
Whatever the validity of the hero interpretation, the term “hero” has been widely and indiscriminately used, and means many things to many people. The historian tends to think of the hero as a person whose influence shapes the flow of events, and leaves a mark on his times; the philosopher, as one whose ideas or theories profoundly alter the thinking of his time; the folklorist, as one who affects the custom, belief, magic, or ritual of a culture; the sociologist, as a person, real or imaginary, who evokes particular attitudes and behavior.
We might well state how the terms “hero” and “demigod” will be used in these pages. By hero we shall mean one whose virtue, influence, or personality is so powerful as to appeal strongly to the popular imagination, and to come to symbolize certain dominant ideals of the age. The hero must win hearts rather than battles, and appeal to the imagination rather than the reason. By this definition the political men of the hour, matinee idols, and sports champions qualify as heroes, though of the most ephemeral type. So do the more solidly grounded historic figures who seem much more important to their own generation than to later ones. The frontier “ring tailed roarers” of a century ago were idolized in their day; an America with no western frontier has largely forgotten them.
The “third generation test” distinguishes the true hero from the passing idol. The number of men who seem great to their contemporaries is always large. Many of this number will be admired by the second generation, which feels the hero’s charm and power in the stories of their parents, who knew and associated with the great man. Very often the attraction does not continue for the third generation. By then the hero’s personality and exploits take on a certain remoteness.
The demigod is distinguished from the hero by a persistendy high reputation, and by association with ideals that have an undiminishing value in the culture. The demigod is also enveloped in legendary and traditional tales which surpass the significance of purely historical facts. Horatio Gates, “Mad Anthony” Wayne, and Francis Marion are Revolutionary heroes, but Washington is the epoch’s demigod. Generals Jackson, Stuart, and Longstreet for the South, and Grant, McClellan, and Meade for the North, are heroes of the War Between the States. Lincoln and Lee are the two figures of that period who seem to have qualities that may make them demigods. But our first demigod, and the only one whose full qualifications for the term has been amply demonstrated, is George Washington.
A remarkable feature of the Washington story is the rapidity of his ascent to Olympus. Relatively obscure in 1775, he was being compared to the immortals long before the Revolution was over. His own generation apotheosized him, so that Parson Weems felt no hesitancy about writing of him as “our demigod” as early as 1800. Even though Washington led a successful rebellion against British authority, British writers praised him as extravagantly as American chauvinists. Few leadersi n history have elicited such support from a people against whom they were rebelling. 5
Nineteenth century American literature abounds with indications of the supreme position of Washington in the hearts of the American people. Poets celebrated him in epic poems, dramatists in patriotic sketches, and novelists in episodes in which he was portrayed as an aloof, god-like paragon who could do no wrong. The visit of Lafayette to America in 1824, with the subsequent enthusiasm it reawakened for the Revolutionary ideals and heroism, marked one of the high-water marks in Washington idolatry. For more than a year his triumphant tour, which Charles Sumner said “belonged to the poetry of history,” evoked unprecedented enthusiasm everywhere. This uncritical praise is even more amazing when one considers that Washington lived in the “Age of Reason,” which attempted to take a strictly rationalistic view of nature and humanity, and an age when the printing press recorded the details of his defeats and mistaken opinions as well as the charges of his political enemies.
How was Washington able to join the immortals during his own lifetime? The answer is extremely complex: but among the various factors which were responsible, four major ones might be mentioned. The Father of his Country was capable, aristocratic, a natural leader; he looked and acted the part of the hero. He lived at a time, and participated in events, which were conducive to hero psychology. Because of his inexhaustible patience and tenacity he came to personify for the colonies a noble but difficult cause. He would not, finally, accept dictatorial power even when it was offered to him, but like Cincinnatus of old, went back to his ploughshare once the great task which he undertook had been accomplished. For these and other reasons, his prestige after Comwallis’ surrender at Yorktown was even greater than that of the govemment of the United States. 6
The Revolution was the nation’s greatest hour: the times that tried men’s souls. So dynamic was Washington’s leadership that under it the colonies suppressed deep-rooted sectional jealousies sufficiently to wage a successful war against one of the strongest powers in Europe. A “Golden Age” for heroes and patriots, the Revolution has continued up to our day to have an aura of daring and devotion for Americans. For a half century after the fighting it was impossible to deride those who participated in the Revolution, or defend those who opposed it, without bringing down censure on one’s head. 7 As the lesser heroes lost their appeal and significance in ensuing decades, the nation’s appreciation and admiration tended to focus on the Commander-in-Chief who led the Continental Army to victory, resigned his military command, and became the first president of the new Republic.
Washington’s best publicist, and the author who did most to implant legendary material in the minds of the people, was the colorful Parson Mason Weems (1759–1825), Washington’s first biographer. An itinerant bookseller, Weems toured the eastern seaboard, ever ready with a sermon, stump speech, dialectic, or jig on the fiddle, just as the occasion demanded. In Virginia when Washington died in 1799, Weems pushed ahead his plans to get out a book about Washington, and published in 1800 his 80 page. History of the Life, Death, Virtues, and Exploits of General George Washington. Although there was no Mt. Vemon parish (Mt. Vernon being in Truro Parish, and Weems never having been its rector), he signed himself “rector of Mt. Vernon parish.” He had, however, preached many sermons in this part of the country.
Although Parson Weems had a far from idyllic home life himself, 8 he wrote a book that not only portrayed a super-human Washington, but was also an apologia for the American family and home. Each edition tended to make more of Washington’s youth and training. In the fifth edition the cherry tree story (probably the most persistent legend in American history), the cabbage story, and the wild colt story, were all introduced—without any substance of historical fact.
Granting that Weems was better at legend than history, and that he popularized many untruths, one cannot help but feel that later scientific historians have been unduly severe on this imaginative itinerant who mixed mythology, poetry, and the backwoods so delightfully. 9 He was working in the realm of legend, not historical fact, and embellished his readable account with an honest and sincere patriotism. Even in Weem’s day there were two Washingtons—the real and the legendary—and he interested himself largely in the latter. The Washington that resulted in his book, as Edward O’Neill has commented “was very different from the one born and reared in Virginia. But Weems knew that those whom he wanted to reach would not stop to examine the truth of the portrait; they knew it was true.” 10
Even as the first copies of Weem’s work were coming from the presses, one of Virginia’s greatest sons, John Marshall, was contemplating doing an official biography of Washington. Few people were better qualified for the task. For almost four years Marshall had been an officer in the Revolution. He had weathered many hardships, including the bleak winter at Valley Forge, under Washington’s banner. Completely in sympathy with Washington’s politics and administration, he had consulted with him on many occasions. In the winter of 1800 Bushrod Washington, nephew of the deceased president, suggested the biography to Marshall, who enthusiastically accepted the assignment.
The resulting volumes were a disappointmentt o the author and readers alike. The first two, which appeared in the summer of 1804, contained more politics and colonial history than biography. In the first volume (which opens with John Cabot’s voyage and ends with the French and Indian War), Washington’s name appears only twice in 600 pages! The second volume opens with Washington’s birth, skips about among the episodes of his life, and closes with the attack on Trenton. The next volume carries the story through 1779, and the fourth through Washington’s return to Mt. Vernon after the war. The fifth and last volume, easily the best, covered the last sixteen years of Washington’s life, and provided ample opportunity for Marshall to discuss the political theory of which he was so fond. The author himself realized that he had not done the job properly, as this sentence from the Preface makes clear: “The work was composed under circumstances which might afford some apology for its being finished with less care than its importance demanded . . .” Despite fine passages (such as those on the Conway Cabal, home conditions during the war, and Washington’s trouble with Congress), Marshall’s account was a failure. He did not have the time nor the inclination to do the enormous amount of reading and research that would have had to be the foundation of an adequate biography.
While Washington Irving’s biography produced a generation later was a real literary achievement, it can nevertheless be maintained that the Washington who emerged from the pages of pre-Civil War biography was more of a paragon than a human being. Such accounts as those of Jared Sparks, Caroline Kirkland, James Kirk Paulding, and Francis Glass portrayed a man of such perfection that Mark Twain was later prompted to say that he was a greater man than Washington, since Washington couldn’t tell a lie, but he could and didn’t. In a more scholarly fashion O’Neill has pointed out the same weakness in the Washington portrayed in biographies of the nineteenth century:
He had no vices; he had no temper; he was completely unselfish. . . . Is it any wonder that this legendary figure became so strongly entrenched in the American mind that modern history and biography are condemned—generally unheard—when they present their views of the man as he really was, a view based on unimpeachable sources? 11
Another factor that contributed to the zeal for Washington and his legend was the crusade to buy Mt. Vernon for the American people during the 1850’s. The prime mover in the campaign was Anna Pamela Cunningham, who started the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1853. Miss Cunningham referred to herself as, “A descendant of Virginia, now a daughter of South Carolina, moved by feelings of reverence for departed greatness and goodness—by patriotism and a sense of national and, above all, Southern honor.” 12 So vigorous were her many supporters and fellow workers that within six years her goal had been achieved, and she was able to turn Washington’s home into a public shrine.
But the state of the Union, in the years when Mt. Vernon was being bought back by its citizens, was not good. Ominous clouds of war were gathering, and internal dissent was splitting the Republic in two. As the controversy developed, both sides used Washington’s name as a warning against strife and disunion. Both claimed to be following in Washington’s footsteps, and to be doing what he would have done were he still alive. 13 Clay, Calhoun, Lincoln, and a host of lesser politicians called upon George Washington’s words to validate their arguments. When finally the split in the Union occured, and the Southern states set up a separate government, it was George Washington whom they selected to appear on the great Seal of the Confederacy, as a symbol of the principles for which they were fighting.
Before the first shot had been fired at Fort Sumter, and the nation which Washington had joined together had been rent asunder, Washington had been apotheosized. Politicians, orators, authors, painters, sculptors, dramatists, and historians had all helped turn him into a man of marble rather than flesh and blood; legends and imaginary tales about him had flowered throughout the Republic. Margaret Rowe, who thinks of a legend as the slowly perfected fruit from a shoot of imagination grafted on to a tree of fact, has said in her study of Washington:
Facts have to be varied for a long time in the minds and current knowledge of a people until memory and fancy get all blurred and blended together and utterly interwoven
with the hopes and loves and common aspirations of the community, before they rhyme themselves out as romance or work themselves in to the legendary folklore of a nation. 14
By such a blending, a host of Washington legends came into being. Some can be attributed to specific sources, but many cannot. Parson Weems invented the cherry tree legend, favorite of every schoolchild, and laid the ground work for others with such high-sounding but completely undocumented dialogue as this:
“My God, General Washington, how long shall we retreat, when shall we stop?” asked General Reed.
“Why, sir, if we can do no better, we’ll retreat over every river in America,” the Commander answered, “and last of all over the mountains!”
Another story that first appears in Weems is of Washington taming a colt which no one else dared mount (a similar story is associated with Alexander’s taming Bucephalus). But to no single source can be attributed such stories as these: that Washington, like Saul of old, stood head and shoulders above his fellows (actually he was shorter than Thomas Jefferson, whom we seldom think of as a huge man); that he was a man apart, with no real friends, and with too heavy a burden to laugh or smile; that he concealed a deep and unrequited passion for some famous colonial beauty; that he carved his initials on Natural Bridge, and other landmarks; or that he slept in almost every building that can be shown to have been standing in the eighteenth century.
More elaborate and provocative than these stories are those of Washington’s miraculous escapes from danger. The best known of these holds that an Indian chief came to Washington while he was traveling in the Northwest, and asked for an interview. The old chief who came into the Virginian’s quarters had fought against the British in Braddock’s campaign, when Washington had so distinguished himself for bravery. The Indian told of seeing Washington when the forces met, and of saying to his braves: “Mark yon tall and daring warrior? He is not of the red coat tribe. He hath an Indian’s wisdom and his warriors fight as we do—himself alone is exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he will die!” But the chief went on to say, “It was all in vain. A power mightier far than we shielded him from harm. He cannot die in battle. The Great Spirit protects that man and guides his destinies.” 15 What medieval story furnishes better evidence of a hero’s superhuman destiny?
Another group of stories centers around the notion that Washington was beloved and protected by the gods. Even while he was a small child, his Mother is supposed to have had a prophetic dream, in which George saved the house (taken to be symbolic of the Republic) from destruction by flames. As is often true with favorites of the gods, Washington is said to have had a sword with special properties. Samuel Woodworth asserted in The Champion of Freedom (published in New York in 1816) that this sword would bring forth the first message from the spirit of Washington, and that in times of great national crisis it would “not remain passively on the wall, but would flash and brandish itself, and arouse the living characters to action. 16
In all these stories Washington epitomizes the traits of which young America was fondest—virtue, forthrightness, idealism, patriotism, and piety among them—even though certain facts on record cannot be reconciled with this idealized portrait of his character. 17 Yet there is no real contradiction here, since the legends deal with the symbolic, rather than the historic, Washington.
The single feature which goes farthest towards explaining his susceptibility to the legendary process is the magnetic and consistent personality of the historic Washington. In account after account we read how impressed men of all ranks and stations were when they met Washington, and how naturally he assumed the role of leader. As have all the demigods in western civilization, he was willing to stake his life and fortune on his principles: to take up without question a task others could not perform. That he was able to triumph over superior forces, and in the face of incredible hardships, added to his reputation and his fame.
Virginians were naturally proud of their most famous son, and Washington (whose great-grandfather had settled in Westmoreland County well over a century before the Revolution) became the model of the planter class in the Old Dominion. Nothing had been so dear to the Father of his country, as Virginia writers continuously pointed out, as the cultivating of his land. “How much more delightful to an undebauched mind,” Washington wrote to Arthur Young in 1788, “is the task of making improvements on the earth than all the vain glory which can be acquired from ravaging it.” Even the Jeffersonians, who had little sympathy with Washington’s Federalist policies, were in complete accord with these agrarian sentiments.
Among those of the Virginia gentry who patterned their lives on Washington’s was Robert E. Lee. In a letter to his family from Fort Mason, Texas, on January 23, 1861, Colonel Lee wrote of Washington:
How his spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labors! I will not, however, permit myself to believe, until all the ground for hope has gone, that
the fruit of his noble deeds will be destroyed . . . 18
After the War between the States in which Lee played a leading role, Washington’s reputation suffered a decline in his native state, and indeed throughout the nation. Among the factors which explain this are the momentous events of the 1860’s, which absorbed the minds of Americans in the most serious crisis since the Revolution, and reoriented American thinking. A second “Golden Age” of heroes emerged from times that once again tried men’s souls, along with two potential demigods (Lincoln and Lee). Other factors which explain the waning of the Washington symbol antedate the War between the States. Washington’s generation, and the one that followed it (these sons of those who had known and seen Washington still felt the warmth of his personality) were gone. Instead of seeming a living leader, Washington began to take on the air of a lifeless abstraction. The completeness with which the Washington legend had been adopted contributed to its decline: it became so much a matter of course that people lost interest in it.
Artists and sculptors, in their efforts to immortalize Washington, actually help fossilize and dehumanize him for the American public. Anyone who glances at the Washington portraits will understand why this was true. Almost all those that are widely reproduced were done after Washington had been fitted with poorly-fitting wooden false teeth in 1789, and picture a dour, humorless old man. No one can estimate how many people have been repelled from the human Washington by the Gilbert Stuart portraits of Washington, which have been reproduced thousands of times since they were painted. Although Stuart was by no means the first artist to depict Washington, his works are the ones which come to most Americans’ minds when they think of the first president. 19 By far the best known of all the portraits are his “ Lansdowne” and the “ Boston Athenaeum” pictures. The first of these, done for the Marquis of Lansdowne, represents Washington standing by a table, the right hand extended; the second, purchased for the Boston Athenaeum in 1832, is of the head alone. Stuart made so many copies of the Athenaeum likeness on the many occasions when he needed money quickly that he came to refer to it as “my hundred dollar bill.” We have Rembrandt Peale’s opinion that in it the features were inaccurately drawn, and the character “heavily exaggerated.” 20 The total effect Stuart and the other early limners of Washington achieved was that of burying the flesh-and blood quality of Washington under scores of stilted, pompous paintings. They have haunted many an American since they were created with memories of a marble-like face looking out severely and unbendingly at the world.
The writers were no more successful at transferring the human and everyday quality of the great leader to paper than the painters had been to canvas. 21 A careful study has revealed that no less than 75 plays and pageants have been written about George Washington since 1875, not one of which has been more than slightly successful, and most of which have been dismal failures. 22 Only five of them (August Thomas’ Colonel George of Mt. Vernon, Percy MacKaye’s Wakefield, Maxwell Anderson’s Valley Forge, Sidney Kingsley’s The Patriots, and Paul Green’s Faith of our Fathers) have been even moderately well received; most of the rest are best forgotten. A number of the plays are guilty of historical distortion, depicting a meeting of Washington and Howe, Washington reading the Declaration of Independence outside Independence Hall on July 4, 1776, or Washington crossing the Delaware according to the romantic conception popularized in Leutze’s painting. The playwrights seem to have assumed that the very name Washing would reveal the character, relieving them of the burden of doing so. In their defense, however, it might be pointed out that the integration of his personality and lack of startling dramatic situations in his life make it difficult to bring him to life as a dramatic hero.
The Washington symbol tended to decline as the Lincoln symbol came up, with a more earthly and human appeal. A century after Cornwallis’ surrender people had come to take Washington for granted, and even to tire of the stories of his virtues which text books and orators repeated endlessly. Those states which did not see in Lincoln the qualities that marked him as a suitable successor (and Virginia was among them) found a suitable subject for their idolatry in Lee.
Since the turn of the century there has not been displayed a great deal of special devotion to Washington in his native state. Washington has evolved into a completely national hero, and into the symbol for unity. His troops knew no state boundaries, and in the interest of impartiality he was always especially demanding of his Virginia officers. The Washington monument was erected on federal territory, in a national capital with power over all the American states. When Mt. Vernon was rescued from private ownership, contributions from every state were responsible; more than any other mansion in Virginia, it is thought of as a national shrine.
Even the restoration of Washington’s birthplace, Wakefield, was a national undertaking. The Wakefield Memorial Association was organized in 1923 by Josephine Wheelwright Rust, and subsidized by both the federal government and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The completion of the restoration was in no sense a Virginia triumph. Since the first World War four novels in which Washington is the hero have appeared, not one written by a Virginian, or even a Southerner. 23
Washington became one of the primary targets for the “debunking” school of biography in the 1920’S. William E. Woodward, leader of the group, was the author of George Washington, the Image and the Man, in 1926. The character he portrays is vain, ordinary, and undemocratic:
He seems to have been principally a figurehead, a symbol. He was almost as impersonal at the top of the government as a statue on top of a monument would have
How strange that Woodward, with this insight, would not have seen the futility of directing a personal attack against the man who had become the impersonal symbol for unity! By now it is manifest that the debunker’s attack of Washington, which seemed so devastating at the time, actually did not penetrate the outer surface of the serene and well-entrenched legend.
It is the principle of unity, rather than Washington the man, that his native state has rejected. Hence his local decline, and the rise of Lee. Having to choose between defending the Union and defending the Old Dominion, General Lee threw his lot with his homeland. By deliberately espousing secession and the path of armed resistance, Virginia reinterpreted the principle for which Washington had fought with an army in which Massachusetts men and Virginia men faced a common foe. She chose to defend her own integrity rather than compromise with the states north of the Mason-Dixon line.
One of the most enduring results of the War between the States is the defeat complex which swept over the South as the result of a crushing defeat. No other section of the United States has suffered such a blow: a fact which helps explain why the southern region is the most self-conscious one in the nation. Lee, rather than Washington, symbolizes defeat and rededication. Washington stands for ultimate victory, and the undoing of foes of the American Union. Lee stands for reconciliation after defeat, and the belief that under some circumstance secession is justified. Virginia admires Washington, but worships Lee.
The extensive celebration of the bicentennial of Washington’s birth in 1932 did a great deal to revive the interest and pride in the Father of his Country. No less than 16,000 bicentennial celebrations were held during a nine month period, totaling a staggering 4,760,345 separate and distinct programs. 25 President Franklin D. Roosevelt was justified, in his summation of the work of the Bicentennial Commission, in adjusting the extensive tributes and services “unique in history and of incalculable value to the American people.”
COURTESY WASHINGTON & LEE UNIVERSITY
The Charles Willson Peale Portrait, 1772
Washington at the heart of the Commonwealth
The Houdon Washington in the Capitol, Richmond
Virginia’s participation in the celebration was vigorous and extensive. Services in Alexandria’s Christ Church, which were attended by President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, officially opened the Bicentennial on February 21. On Washington’s birthday one day later special services, banquets, and parades were held throughout the state. In April governors from 26 states gathered in Virginia to pay tribute to Washington, and a month later the George Washington Masonic National Memorial was dedicated, with representatives of all Grand Lodges of Masons present. July 4th celebrations throughout the Old Dominion were centered around the Washington theme, and elaborate memorial exercises, at which the governor officiated, were held on December 18 to commemorate the anniversary of Washington’s funeral.
Despite the scope of the 1932 activity, no satisfactory Washington biography, employing the new materials and techniques of modern historiography, appeared. It remained for Virginia’s best known historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, to undertake this task a decade later. For years historians had felt that the mass of information on Washington was so enormous, and the job of digesting it so complex, that writing a full-scale life was hopeless. Dr. Freeman, having completed his monumental study of Robert E. Lee and his lieutenants, turned his great energies and capacities to the task, and is currently engaged in writing what will undoubtedly be the most important life of Washington produced since Washington Irving’s in 1856. The volumes (if Dr. Freeman’s present scheme is consummated, there will be eight) employ two new techniques which were perfected in his earlier writings. According to the first of these, which Dr. Freeman calls the “fog of war technique,” the military historian must relate only that which a given soldier knows at a given time. Since the man being discussed could not see on the other side of the hill, the historian must never judge him as if he could, or even relate what actually is occuring on the other side until he has completed the picture as seen from the original point. The second involves a new conception of the problem of command. It maintains that this is always a general’s great problem, that those who command form a team which must work together for success, and that the coordinating of this team is the commander-in-chief’s primary function. Seen in this light a general’s apparent mistakes or retreats may fit into a much larger pattern in which they can be justified or explained. The volumes Freeman writes on Washington will reveal a more human and lovable person than the prototype in many American minds, and will revivify the Washington symbol for our generation.
That the first Virginia president, and first American demigod, was not the aloof and unapproachable man of marble that he has seemed to many an American, there can be no doubt. When the veneer which historians, poets, playwrights, painters, and sculptors have covered him with is removed, there emerges a man whose warmth, humility, and integrity make him truly the Cincinnatus of the West. An anecdote relating to the visit of Colonel Meade to the retired Washington serves to affirm this opinion. Meade, according to tradition, asked Washington’s step-grandson how he could identify the General when he met him in the fields, where Meade was riding out to meet him. “You will meet with an old gentleman riding alone,” Mr. Custis replied, “in plain drab clothes, a broad brimmed white hat, a hickory switch in his hand, and carrying an umbrella with a long staff, which is attached to his saddle bow. That is General Washington.”
And it is that Washington which will not be forgotten as long as our nation endures.
* * * *
Virginians look back often at the past, and wherever they look they see heroes. So many of them believe explicitly in the hero theory of history that it could hardly be otherwise. In the Old Dominion evaluating and classifying the great and near-great of former days is considered an important activity. Inevitably the procedure is tied in with the cult of family which Douglas Southall Freeman has aptly called “a mild form of Shintoism.” Virginians treat their heroes not only as human beings, but as symbols; they are quite aware of the functional values such symbols have. They come to realize, perhaps without fully knowing how they reached the conclusion, that hero symbols satisfy their emotional and psychological needs, and reflect their social, racial, and political ideals. Some of them see that their heroes are actually important economic factors in the state today.
They see that Pocahontas and John Smith have not only re-emphasized Tidewater’s glamor and antiquity, but have helped put it on a paying basis. The use of George Washington and Robert E. Lee as prototypes of the country squire has helped lure scores of outsiders into the state as gentlemen farmers. Handicraft and folk arts of the mountains, an area which has learned to make good use of the Boone legend, have brought needed dollars into many a destitute home. The heroes have helped enormously to expand the tourist business, which is now one of the chief sources of revenue for the state.
Certain of the heroes we have discussed appeal more to one region, class, or generation of the state than the others, but there is a trait in each which makes him first and foremost a Virginian. This common trait is the hero’s integrity and simplicity—a simplicity in which is harboured his strength, his code, and his glory.
The critics of these men have pointed out that they have mutual weaknesses as well as strengths, and lack the brilliance and imagination of other paragons. Henry Adams, for example, was a classmate of Robert E. Lee’s son Rooney at Harvard College. “The habit of command was not enough,” Adams wrote, “and the Virginian had little else. He was simple beyond analysis; so simple that even the simple New England student could not realize him.”
The Virginia hero, as Washington, Smith, Boone, and Lee demonstrate, is in many ways simple. But he is solid; he can endure; he is a rock in adversity. He will not shine in a salon or soiree atmosphere; his writings will not be filled with subtleties and nouances. Yet if asked to push forward when others are mentally and physically exhausted, he will advance. If asked to risk his life by leading an inferior force or to go forward when men of a different mold fall back, he will charge. If saddled with a job which seems too big for one man, and for which he is in some ways plainly inadequate, he will somehow bear the load. With quite determination and decency he will toil without complaining, and in a supreme test, die without faltering. Through the middle of his being runs a vein of iron, and nothing can wash it out.
Virginia’s heroes and symbols are not always the same as those of the Deep South. King Cotton, lynch law, New South, John C. Calhoun, Jeff Davis, Dixiecrats, and Huey Long are not leading symbols in her boundaries. The War between the States does and always will bind her to Dixie; but even that epic conflict is seen as one in which gallant Virginians drew the sword and (in Stonewall Jackson’s ringing words) threw away the sheath. The leaders in battle are thought of as Virginia, rather than Confederate, leaders. 26
The state’s symbols are deeply entrenched in the educational scheme. This was pointed out some years ago by an educational expert from Wisconsin, who made a thorough study of the state educational system in 1928 and reported:
Virginia education has emphasized symbolism rather than realism. . . . Pupils spend their time dealing with words and symbols rather than the things to which they relate. 27
Intertwined with all phases of the people’s lives, these symbols exert a powerful if invisible influence. Unconsciously the citizens come to take their heroes as exemplars and measuring sticks; the journalists, lawyers, and politicians (often not so unconsciously) use them as arguments, justifications, and proofs. Thus heroes are a basic component of the states’ frame of mind.
This frame of mind is built around the interdependent beliefs and values which make up a complete system of thought. Of course these beliefs are not totally unlike those of other American states; but the particular combination, and the emphasis which the elements of the combination receive, is uniquely Virginian. Instead of ignoring or forgetting that part of their culture which is distinct, Virginians seek it out diligently to display as their badge of superiority. Writing in a semi-humorous vein of this tendency, Virginius Dabney has said:
We Virginians modestly admit our superiority to citizens of all other American states, just as any Southerner will readily concede that he can handle a Northerner without half trying, whether it be inside the squared circle, at the brass rail, or with derringers at ten paces. 28
Because they have cultivated their distinctions, Virginians have developed within a close-knit union, where state boundaries are in many senses imaginary, what might almost be thought of as a thriving sub-culture. This is what T. S. Eliot must have had in mind when he said that to cross to Virginia was “almost as definite as to cross the English Channel.” This frame of mind, ultimately an expression of social situation, have gradually evolved because it amply justifies the existing conditions and mores. But an area’s “frame of mind” may do more than this: it may utilize subjective evaluations, and lead to an inconsistent relationship between the idea and the action. Thus Virginians universally condemned Hitler’s racial theories, and fought wholeheartedly against the “master race” theory, although their own social code called for the segregation of a minority race within their own culture. Some widely-held Virginia beliefs run counter to those of the nation as a whole. Among them are the conviction of the superiority of rural life, the merits of aristocracy, leisureliness, and a chivalric notion towards women: in a nation which prides itself on its lack of social classes, its urbanism, its activism and progress, and its acceptance of woman as man’s equal. These inconsistencies do not cause Virginians to think of themselves as less entitled to be called “Americans” than those in other areas. They are more apt to think that it was a large crop of Virginia heroes and paragons which was responsible for the formation of the Republic, and that the true ideology of America is that of the state within which they were fortunate enough to be born.
This outlook serves to hold the society together, and perpetuate the state traditions and pride. Such continuity in Virginia life springs not only from systematized thinking, but from informal thought and social pressures. Because the Commonwealth’s continuity has been great, so has her stability; because her citizens have lived so much in the past, viewing her history much as one admires the rare art of a finer period, they have not been anxious to change the status quo.
This outlook is a vital conservatizing force on the contemporary scene, and merely one of the corollaires of the hero theory broadly applied. This does not imply that the state’s outlook is static; actually, it is in a period of major transition. The Great Depression, two World Wars, and the continuous threat of a third one, have raised havoc with the social attitudes which came down from the nineteenth century. Just how much of the old will be preserved by a generation for which so many things seem to be unprecedented and new, only the future will tell.
In choosing their heroes, Virginians have always put a higher value on integrity and fortitude than they have on brilliance or profundity. “Beauty of conduct,” to use Virginia Moore’s phrase for this emphasis, must be conspicuous in the career of anyone who would aspire to Olympus, and there has been such a beauty in the careers of the four men we have discussed. Twentieth century Virginians feel this as strongly as did their forebears. In the midst of widespread ferment and change, many of them have clung tenaciously to their past, adding to the Decalogue, as James Branch Cabell puts it, “a very complex Eleventh Commandment conceming honor.” 29 They have depended not so much upon the search for truth as upon the softening quality of an atmosphere, and a strong irreducible core of tradition. They have, and still do, love their land; they are still tightly bound together by theories of aristocracy, Anglophilism, biracialism, individualism, hero worship, and the force of a gloriously-remembered past. From these and other theories they have fabricated an outlook which makes possible a deep and solid homogeneity and loyalty.
Ever since the days of Bacon’s Rebellion there have been those who opposed certain aspects of the Virginia pattern, and the conservatism on which it is based. The most successful of these opponents has been Thomas Jefferson, who was responsiblef or abolishing primogeniture and entail, and who envisioned a society governed by the aristoi (those with the greatest natural talents and ability) instead of the aristocracy. Yet he was not able to destroy the pattern—or win for himself a high place on the Olympus reserved for the Virginia heroes who believed in it. Jefferson may well be the greatest political theorist and intellect that Virginia has produced; he is not the hero most cherished by the majority of Virginians.
A more impersonal, and perhaps more powerful, threat than that posed by the Jeffersonians is making itself felt in Virginia today. This is the threat of technology and industrialization—the threat of a new mechanized world where the metaphors, images, and values of ante-bellum Virginia no longer seem to apply.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that Virginia has reached a point somewhat like that which Matthew Arnold wrote of in “Stanzas From the Grande Chartreuse”:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead
The other powerless to be born.
The world that is dead is that of the self-sustaining planter, the sturdy, independent yeoman, the contented, loyal Negro. This is the world which forms the basis of a stereotyped notion of ante-bellum Virginia, and the model for such native writers as John Pendleton Kennedy, John Esten Cooke, Thomas Nelson Page, and Mary Johnston. Many a tourist catches glimpses of this world when he visits Monticello or Mount Vernon, only to have them quickly dispelled a few minutes later by the traffic snarls of Charlottesville or Washington.
The world that seems “powerless to be born” is a mass produced, standardized world dedicated frankly to bigness, progress, and industrialization. The spirit of technology, of urbanization, of equalitarianism are characteristics of twentieth century America. They have made great inroads in Virginia, but they have not yet been fully accepted. Many people there still believe whole-heartedly in the agrarian way of life, in craftsmanship, and in rigid class lines and segregation. These people may soon be a minority group in the state; but a powerful one, with a strong hold on the educational, religious, and political systems of the state. More importan they have a strong grip on the imagination of many people who are not present on the scene.
Faced with this dilemma, Virginia has attempted to turn back: to live in a past that incorporates the conveniences and attitudes of the present. Among the results are “colonial” houses with the latest type of plumbing, countless restorations of historic buildings and homes, and the establishment of a new country gentry that depends on outside wealth for its support. If the incongruity of the compromise seems most apparent in such places as Williamsburg, Charlottesville, and Middleburg, it can nevertheless be noted throughout the state.
Virginia is undergoing major transitions in the present generation. Three important cultural movements are sweeping the state—colonialism in Tidewater, country squiredom in middle Virginia, and folk crafts and arts in the mountains. Each movement has utilized Virginia’s prepossession with heroes. In Tidewater John Smith and Pocahontas have enjoyed a phenominal rise in popularity, despite the historical opposition discussed in an earlier chapter. In Piedmont those two superb horsemen and planters, Washington and Lee, have become prototypes for the country squire. 30 In Appalachia Daniel Boone, the unmachined, the woodlorist who even surpassed the Indians, symbolizes the folk-craft spirit and attitude of the mountains.
No one knows how Virginia will change in these years of breath-taking transition; but there is no indication that she intends to relinquish her hero theory or the cherished memories of her favorite sons. In an important joint session of the two houses of the Virginia Assembly held as America hovered on the brink of World War II, the President of the Senate gave an address that won the plaudits of all his associates. Before Virginia’s highest legislative body, Senator Henry T. Wickham acknowledged for the official record the state of veneration reserved for Robert E. Lee, most admired of state heroes. The pervading tone of the speech was religious not political:
Now, I have heard many memorial addresses by most devout clergymen, and they,
with the utmost reverence, likened his last words “Strike the tent” to the last words of the Savior upon the cross of Calvary, “It is finished” . . . No, I believe when he uttered those words that a vision of glory appeared before his closing eyes; a vision of the progress of the pilgrim. He heard a trumpet sound and lo! A troop cometh, and encompassed by a cloud of witnesses a veteran pilgrim essays the flood . . .
And all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side, and soon, very soon, the tender feet of the saintly daughter brought her to the river’s bank, and when she felt the water’s icy chill she trembled, and angels came down from Heaven and comforted her. 31