Washington as a Symbol

Washington's leadership was an appealing surrogate for the king's paternal presence. Historian Kevin Kelly discusses the first president's legacy. February 18, 2008


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Memorialized in currency, geography, and granite, George Washington is one of the Revolution's most revered figures. Colonial Williamsburg historian Kevin Kelly joins me now to talk about the father of our country.

What do people want to know about Washington?

Kevin Kelly: What do they want to know about him? Well, what they want to know, probably, is not necessarily what they need to know. I think what they recognize is clearly a symbol, an icon, as you mentioned, and recognizable. In other words, he's been taught, he's central to a lot of the American history that you have mentioned. There's monuments to him. But I would argue that kind of overlooks what his real worth is.

Lloyd: What do they overlook?

Kevin: Well, a couple things, I think. I think you need to keep in context the first people who saw him as a hero. Most English and Scottish settlers to this country had a real reverence for the king. And the way that they idealized portraits. Every year they'd celebrate his birthday. They would illuminate the town or things of this sort. He became, and particularly with George III, who was the first English-speaking, English-born of the Hanoverian Kings, they really put a lot of imagery into him. They really felt that they were his subjects. Increasingly, they looked to the king to be their champion against what they considered to be dishonest and corrupted House of Commons.

Lloyd: Not entirely untrue, we might add.

Kevin: Well I think what happened is, and this is a recent something historians are looking at, is when they discovered that he was in fact not their loving father, but clearly backed what parliament was doing, they completely lost faith in him. They destroyed his images. They took down statues, they changed tavern names from "Kings Arms" to "The Eagle." They just basically repudiated what they had seen. But, they needed somebody to step in and take that role.

Lloyd: Ah-ha, OK.

Kevin: This is where Washington, in a way, has spent much in his early years testing himself. He could be very outspoken. He could get very angry. He controlled himself. And of course, he was in the right place at the right time to take command of the Continental Army, and clearly won independence.

Lloyd: I always thought it was very interesting that George Washington, who said he really had no desire to be commander of the Army, showed up at congress in a military uniform.

Kevin: There's really no explanation for that, except possibly he was not necessarily advertising himself to be the commanding officer, but to indicate his willingness to go to war. Because he had, in fact, been commanding officer of the Virginia militia in the French and Indian Wars. I think he was not necessarily angling for the job. It was clear though, from a continental point of view, they couldn't turn to a New Englander to become the commanding officer of what was then a New England Army around Boston. They had, the Continental Congress had to show a sense that this is really a continental operation, not just a regional one. So clearly, Washington became the person to do that. And you can start seeing "The Father of our Country" being labeled. He's getting that label even during the war years.

Lloyd: Well he looked like a military man, like a commander, didn't he? He was a big guy.

Kevin: About a head taller than most men, and strong.

Lloyd: And a championship horseback rider, which was critical in those days. People forget that now, but if you couldn't sit a horse well, you couldn't lead anything.

Kevin: He was reputed to be one of the best horsemen, and was also reputed to be one of the best dancers. Another manly skill.

I think that's one of the things that they, at the time, that, and so you know, when he does die and pass away, you get all these eulogies. He really is, at that point, from the 1800s, celebrated as a central figure who in fact accomplished and more importantly, he really agonized over whether or not he should come back and be president. Because he had promised that when he surrendered his command, that he would not take public office again. By taking public office again, he was going against his word and he was worried that somehow that would come back to haunt him. But he did realize he was the only person at the time who could probably pull off the fact of taking 13 states that had little in common and forge them into a united nation.

Lloyd: So he actually was sort of an heroic figure. He did all those things. I have always been impressed in the Revolutionary War, he was smart enough to see that he didn't have to win, he just had to avoid losing.

Kevin: At times, he went a little over. After Trenton, he went into Princeton and almost got captured by Cornwallis. It's a real interesting thing. Cornwallis and Washington had more than one occasion to meet each other on the battlefield. In the end, it was Washington who actually won.

Lloyd: Cornwallis was by far the superior commander.

Kevin: That's what I've read, too. I think there's good evidence of that.

Lloyd: It's interesting that Washington and Cornwallis met several times. If you were keeping a real scorecard, Cornwallis won most of them. He just lost the last one.

Kevin: Well he also lost the last one unexpectedly. He didn't expect to lose the last one. He was unaware of what the French were bringing with them, which was European siege cannon. He put together a fortification that would hold back six-pounders, and it certainly could take musket fire. The cannon and mortars and the howitzers and heavy guns that the French had just blew Yorktown away. He clearly was prepared to fight what he thought would be a winnable siege against a traditional army, not a European army.

Lloyd: You read histories of Washington, and he seems a bit bigger than life, quite often. You wonder how much of that is an accurate depiction of a man who was big and strong and able to lead men, partially I think, because he looked like he ought to be able to lead men.

Kevin: I think that's true, but there's also another thing that was recognized at the time. I think it's still probably relevant to us today. He knew when to step down. He knew when to not continue. He had the following. The officers would have followed him anywhere. But he set a precedent. I think that's really the important point. His ability to have power and let power go. I think that's one of the things that's still worth our considering.

Lloyd: You don't see that every often, do you?

Kevin: No. We have a history over 200 years of not having a coup. We should have had, there's times when animosity between the factions is so strong. There's always been that sort of sense, you hold the power for a while, and then you willingly – maybe reluctantly – let it go.

Lloyd: What do you think people remember about Washington that they remember wrong?

Kevin: I think there's something very important about Washington that they don't know, or if they knew, they'd not paid attention to it. He freed his slaves. Before he died, he made that decision in the '80s. He made the decision that he had to end the ownership of his slaves. He had a problem, because his slaves were intertwined with Martha's dowry slaves, so he could not free them. But he could free his own. I think that's an amazing moment in a time when slavery was still, for the most part, everybody accepted it as normal.

Lloyd: Ordinary.

Kevin: That's a little thing I think most Americans don't really know about George Washington.

What I like about Washington in a sense is, he is really human. He had to fight to control his temper; he had one. He clearly reluctantly learned from his mistakes. He could also be shallow. There are little things in his life, but I think for the time he was a good person for what they needed. They could project on to him their images of what they think a leader should be.

It also kind of has an importance on what we want the past to mean to us, too. I'm not saying it's all relative, but there are lots of things in the past, we have to choose. We can't put it all out there, so we have to choose what we think is important to study, and to teach. That's what we try to do here at Colonial Williamsburg.

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