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George Washington, on his birthday

February 22 is George Washington’s birthday. Below is my review of “Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment,” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Garry Wills. It’s not a biography but an illustration of Washington’s greatest asset—character.

It seems astonishing what we Baby Boomers were taught in grammar school about George Washington—you know, the story about the cherry tree and of not telling a lie. Eventually we learned the story itself was a lie, as surely as we learned Santa Claus was a myth. Some myths die harder than others and the story of George Washington and the cherry tree persists to this day, so much so that the latest generation of Washington biographers must continue to debunk the tale. In “Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment,” historian Garry Wills has a completely different take on the story, as he does on so much of what he writes about.

The tale of the cherry tree was the creation of one of Washington’s earliest biographers, Parson Weems. It was rewritten later for the McGuffey Reader to illustrate a simple moral: “Never tell a lie.” According to Wills, this was not the point of the story. The moral does not concern young George but George’s parents. Weems’ anecdote occurs in a chapter that praises Washington’s father for teaching his son to never tell a lie. Later, when young George chops down the cherry tree and confesses the deed, his father embraces him for telling the truth, rather than punishing him for cutting down the tree. Says Wills: “In Weems, all the exaggeration is of affection, calling the boy a hero, and so making him one. Praise is the proper stimulant of virtue.” In a world where praising children was equated with "spare the rod, spoil the child," Weems, an ordained minister, was saying praise was more effective–and George Washington was the proof.

That said, much of Wills’ book is of how artists have portrayed Washington’s rock-ribbed character in their work. The most famous example is Gilbert Stuart’s oil portrait from which Washington’s stoic face on the One Dollar Bill was taken. The portrait itself is a full-length portrayal: Washington is shown standing beside a desk. Behind him can be seen the regalia of office, “the column of order, the drapes of court, the seat of authority, the opening onto vistas of power,” as Wills describes it. “Yet Washington’s chair gives the literal basis of his authority—(on it are carved) thirteen stars for the states, woven together with the binding yet being ribbons of federal connection.” Under the table are three books. Two of the books are histories of Washington’s military career—his General Orders, and a history of the American Revolution. The third book is the Constitution, marking the limits of power. On the desk, where Washington is portrayed as having been attending to official correspondence, are signs of law that bind him: the “Federalist Papers” and the “Journal of Congress.” Says Wills: “He sits here to execute the will of others, not to impose his own.”


The symbols in the Stuart portrait are not of a dictatorship but of a democracy; not of the rule of kings and tyrants but of the rule of law. Above all, Washington was a man ever attentive to the law of his country, whether administered by the Continental Congress during his eight-and-a-half years as Commander-in-Chief, or imposed by the U.S. Congress during his eight years as president. There were several moments in Washington’s career when he could have made himself king, with the full support of the Continental Army and most of his fellow countrymen. Yet, he refused to do so. After the Revolution, he resisted the forces that wanted to make him king and returned to his plantation. In doing so, he was following the example of Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen who left his plow to lead the republic against an invading force. After the invaders were crushed he resisted the temptation to make himself dictator and returned to his plow.

There is no substitute for character. The following quote, by Anthony Harrigan, president of the U.S. Business and Industrial Council, while not specifically about George Washington, sums up the importance of character: “The role of character always has been the key factor in the rise and fall of nations. And one can be sure that America is no exception to this rule. We won’t survive because we are smarter or more sophisticated, but because we are—we hope—stronger inwardly. In short, character is the only effective bulwark against internal forces that lead to a country’s disintegration and collapse.”

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