George Washington, Man and Legend

Lecture by historian Gordon Wood illuminates first president’s hero status.
February 27, 2013

By Laura Donnelly-Smith

First U.S. president, general and statesman George Washington occupies such an unassailable place in American history that he almost seems not human—“more a monument than a man,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood. But George Washington was human, and in an address Monday in the Marvin Center’s Continental Ballroom, Dr. Wood discussed some of the unique characteristics that shaped the man into a hero and influenced our emerging nation.

The lecture was part of a series of events celebrating George Washington’s birthday and highlighting his life, including a wreath-laying ceremony at the Mount Vernon Estate and a celebratory bonfire. George Washington President Steven Knapp said he was honored to welcome Dr. Wood to the university as part of the celebration.

“We’re very glad to be able to add this important academic component to our commemoration of our namesake,” Dr. Knapp said.

Dr. Wood, who is the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, is the author of numerous books, including “Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different,” published in 2006 and focused on the unique characteristics of America’s founding fathers.

“So why was George Washington great? Let’s start with the word ‘disinterested,’” Dr. Wood said. Although in modern parlance, it’s often used to mean “uninterested,” George Washington was disinterested in the sense that he was impartial and cared a great deal about appearing so. He was a gentleman in the 18th-century sense, concerned about propriety and virtue—meaning reputation—and in doing things as they were meant to be done.

An example of Washington’s focus on impartiality was his resignation as commander in chief of the army in 1783, which Dr. Wood said was perhaps the greatest act of his life. When he resigned, he promised not to hold public office or to take part in politics—which was unprecedented at that time. It was widely believed that Washington could become either king or dictator, but he didn’t want to be either, and the symbolic importance of his resignation shouldn’t be understated, Dr. Wood said.

When it was time for the Philadelphia convention in 1787 to hammer out the details of the new nation’s constitution, Washington was concerned that if he attended, as the other founders were encouraging him to do, it would be a dereliction of his earlier promise to avoid public life. He wrote to friends asking their advice, concerned about the appearance of impropriety.

“What finally convinced Washington to attend the convention was the fear that people might think he wanted the federal government—the confederation government—to fail, so that he could then manage a military takeover,” Dr. Wood explained. He reentered public life to ensure that his support for the new nation was clear.

Some of the anecdotes about Washington’s early life that we often use to describe his character are entirely false, Dr. Wood said in an interview before the lecture. The famous “cherry tree” story about young George’s honesty is entirely fictional, invented by the writer Parson Mason Weems in his 1800 book “The Life of Washington.” The entire book was an attempt to humanize Washington the legend, Dr. Wood said. Because very little is actually known about Washington’s early days, the Weems book and others like it take the liberty of filing in the blanks. But rather than humanize him, stories like the cherry tree really just add to the legend.

An aspect of Washington’s character that is not as widely known is the fact that, when he freed his slaves in his will, he also provided for their care, Dr. Wood said.

“He was the only one—and this is important—the only one of the major slave-holding founders to do so,” he said, calling it a “difficult and courageous decision,” for a man of his time. Washington had come to hope that some plan would eliminate slavery in his state. But when it did not, he became eager to act on his own. Six months before his death, he wrote a new will stating that, in addition to being freed, his former slaves should be cared for—with young people being educated in a trade and supported until adulthood, and elderly people being cared for, with funds he provided

“He wrote that new will…in the teeth of opposition, from his state, his neighbors, his friends, his family and maybe even Martha,” Dr. Wood said. “He was defying everyone around him, and that took courage. We think it should have been easy to free his slaves, but it was not.”

As president, Washington used his hard-won authority and reputation to hold the fledgling nation together. Most people didn’t really think the United States could survive its first decade, Dr. Wood said, and Washington used his hero-like status to help keep the citizens connected to him and the nation.

“The nation commanded little loyalty and affection from the citizens,” he said. People felt they were citizens of Massachusetts or Virginia, not Americans. “He stood for the union, and the citizens’ feelings for him…held the nation together. No one else could have played that role or held that kind of authority.”

Washington set countless precedents in his role as president that we still follow today, including his retirement from the office after two terms—a tradition that was eventually formalized with the 22nd Amendment. Ultimately, Washington the man’s actions created Washington the legend, Dr. Wood said.

“Washington, more than any other individual, made democracy possible,” he said. “Washington was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule. There’s been no president quite like him, and we can be sure we will not see his like again.” 

George Washington Lecture: Dr. Gordon S. Wood