I just finished reading Ron Chernow's 800 page biography of the most important and most mysterious of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the namesake of the 42nd State of the Union, General George Washington.
I take it Chernow's biography may not be all that serious in the eyes of Washington scholars. There is so much original source material by and about Washington and everything he did every day of his adult life (Chernow says scholars can get to know him better than his closest intimates knew him), the idea of a one-volume life of the plantation owner, soldier, politician and resident-grownup-among-the-Founders is preposterous.
But I found it fascinating. Most of all because the social issues and political divisions of his time continue to play themselves out today, some 21 decades later. It's amazing how fiercely partisan the country was during Washington's presidency and during his brief retirement.
He was a complicated man, imperfect, not a brilliant rhetorician nor as agile at churning out political philosophy as the other Founders, though a prolific and expressive writer. He was not able to distance himself from his social circumstances nearly enough to assess slavery objectively, but, unlike Jefferson or other prominent Virginians, his struggles of conscience were toward finding some action in the world he might actually effect, not words for the sake of cover. According to Chernow, Washington foresaw that failure to deal with the evil of slavery would destroy the Union. Also according to Chernow, and though this contradicts something I recall reading elsewhere, Washington, unlike Jefferson and perhaps unlike Lincoln, didn't project that those who were forcibly enslaved, once emancipated, should of necessity be driven from the country in which they lived. And while he may have been naive to think that native American peoples would adopt colonial lifestyles, his version of manifest destiny wasn't, from what I can tell, overtly racist.
Before he was President, before the country became the rancourously partisan country that it became by his second term and continues to be today, Washington was physically vigorous. Actually, he remained active his whole life; but Chernow's book emphasized how effortlessly graceful and seemingly invincible Washington was as a young officer and through the harrowing 8 or 9 years of the Revolutionary War. Perhaps not until Franklin Roosevelt did we again see someone so public assume risks so fearlessly and so unselfishly.
So I get now to the point of this post, which is, we have the absolutely wrong image of Washington on our paper and metal money, perpetuating a misguided popular memory of Washington.
Why do we fix Washington in his old age, rather than in his prime? His prime being the Revolutionary War, or the Constitutional Convention, or even his first term as President.
I think the answer may be because Washington was already a myth before he died, and when he died, the country fixed a then-contemporary image of him and "preserved" it in the instant hagiography. That left no room for a popular legacy considered from a longer perspective.
But that was 200 years ago. We ought to have perspective enough now to reject the 19th Century corseting of Washington.
Look at Hamilton (he of the flaming hair) on the Ten Dollar bill: handsome, young, dangerous!
We ought to reclaim an image of Washington as a man as buff as President Obama, as vigorous as Teddy Roosevelt, as canny as Lincoln without the gloom.
The Washington on the Dollar Bill and on the Quarter should be General Washington, perhaps looking across his shoulder astride a horse.
Images, top to bottom: George Washington and William Lee, by John Trumbull, c. 1780 (when Washington was about 48 years old); Alexander Hamilton on the current US Federal Reserve Ten Dollar Note (courtesy of a media kit downloadable from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing); George Washington at Princeton by Charles Peale Polk, c. 1790.