George Washington, Man of Mystery

While theater productions and television shows bring the rich and complex humanity of the Founders to mass audiences, the first president remains a man apart.

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John Adams was exasperated. In 1790, just a year after the United States began its government under the Constitution, Adams already assumed that Americans would forget nearly all the efforts of the Revolution (in particular, his contributions). “The Essence of the whole,” he wrote to Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush, “will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.” Adams, it turns out, was half right. Today Americans remember and commemorate a far broader cast of characters from the American Revolution, yet when it comes to George Washington, we still view him, as Adams noted, as a semi-mythical figure sprung from the earth like a Greek god.

Recent sensations such as Hamilton and Sons of Liberty have lionized the Founders and made household names of some whose fame outside of historical circles was somewhat dimmer. At the same time, they have provided some sorely needed human elements to their stories, making the Founders more three-dimensional and, frankly, interesting. In the hands of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton is surely successful and ambitious, but to a fault. His hubris eventually proves his downfall, not only because of his pride in his policy prescriptions, but also because of his affair with Maria Reynolds. Thomas Jefferson may still be celebrated as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but rarely is he depicted without mention of his duplicitous thinking on slavery and freedom—or his long-term sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved (and who was his wife’s biological half-sister). Benjamin Franklin offers sage advice, but also aphorisms on flatulence and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for flirtation. Even the highly sympathetic HBO miniseries did little to conceal the bitterness and petulance that marked Adams’s career.

But one man both literally and figuratively stands above the fray in each of these productions: George Washington. No one seems to have the ability or desire to crack the code on the tall Virginian. Whatever the scenario, the other men squabble and fight, but Washington stands to the side: quiet, dignified, a bit aloof, and probably dressed in his military uniform. In Hamilton, Miranda acknowledges this lack of color when he has General Washington break the fourth wall to beg the audience’s pardon so that he can “let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second.” He briefly shares his concern that the soldiers he commands want to “put him on a pedestal,” and then he quickly returns to that very stand for nearly the balance of the show. For the most part, however, Washington stands much like a statue as the other Founders swirl about him in a frenzy of activity.

Washington, of course, was no less human, so why have recent popularizers had so much trouble embracing his humanity? First, Washington wanted it that way. For much of his life, he explicitly cultivated quiet distance as a strategy to reinforce his stature in the community, whether as a leader among the colonial Virginia gentry, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, or president of the United States. Protocol and order were paramount for him, and Washington’s central objective in that protocol was to insulate himself, particularly once he was president. His correspondence and papers, though voluminous, reveal little about Washington’s character save for his regular frustration with Congress (and who hasn’t been there?). His writings contain little of the panache and pathos that characterizes the work of others of his generation. Adams fumed in his diary, Franklin sparkled in his anecdotes, Jefferson agonized in his treatises, and Hamilton bristled with passion in his letters. Washington resisted any urge he may have had to display emotion, with rare exceptions.

His fellow Americans embraced the creation of Washington as a distant, godlike figure. Even before his election as president, many Americans saw him as the one true unifying figure in the new nation, already a man apart. By the time of his death in 1799, many saw him as a semi-deity. Within weeks of his passing, Mason Locke Weems set his image in amber and made it infinitely more difficult to engage with the human Washington. A traveling book peddler and minister better known by his title as parson, Weems wrote the enormously popular Life of Washington, which went through several dozen editions in the early 19th century and which shapes our perception of the first president to this day. The best example from Weems’s biography is the story of 6-year-old George admitting that he “can’t tell a lie” when his father asks who chopped down his favorite cherry tree. The story comes entirely from the mind of Weems—sorry if that ruins your day—but nonetheless remains enormously popular as a mark of Washington’s admirable character. Weems was less concerned with historical accuracy (which was not a staple of biographies generally until the 20th century) but instead with using Washington to make his own argument about moral, religious living. When narrating Washington’s death, therefore, Weems described the scene as a spiritual event on par with the resurrection of Jesus. Immediately upon his last breath, Weems recounts, Washington ascended to heaven, where “myriads of mighty angels hastened forth, with golden harps, to welcome the honoured stranger.”

Even Washington’s career as one of the most significant slave owners in the early United States has barely made a dent in his popular persona, as compared for example with his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson. The subject of slavery is raised only infrequently with regard to Washington, which many commentators on Hamilton in particular have noted, and which was also true of Sons of Liberty. When slavery does enter the narrative, it more often indicts the practice itself rather than the character of Washington. Last month, for example, Scholastic pulled a children’s book about Washington’s enslaved cook baking a birthday cake for the president amid protests. The objection to the book focused not on any portrait of Washington, but rather on how the book may have misunderstood the emotional state of Hercules, the enslaved man who worked as the president’s cook.

Americans have developed a deep and rich mythology about the creation of the United States. In recent years, that mythology has permitted a view of the Founders more in touch with their flawed humanity. Yet Washington continues to be an enigma when he should otherwise be coming to life. That the conundrum is more than two centuries old offers little consolation, and instead points to the difficulty of humanizing the one Founder who has zealously resisted it both in his lifetime and since. For better or worse, for the moment, most Americans agree with TV, film, and stage producers that they’re OK with that.