The True George Washington: Note

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff


In every country boasting a history there may be observed a tendency to make its leaders or great men superhuman. Whether we turn to the legends of the East, the folk-lore of Europe, or the traditions of the native races of America, we find a mythology based upon the acts of man gifted with superhuman powers. In the unscientific, primeval periods in which these beliefs were born and elaborated into oral and written form, their origin is not surprising. But to all who have studied the creation of a mythology, no phase is a more curious one than that the keen, practical American of to-day should engage in the same process of hero-building which has given us Jupiter, Wotan, King Arthur, and others. By a slow evolution we have well-nigh discarded from the lives of our greatest men of the past all human faults and feelings; have enclosed their greatness in glass of the clearest crystal, and hung up a sign, "Do not touch." Indeed, with such characters as Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln we have practically adopted the English maxim that "the king can do no wrong." In place of men, limited by human limits, and influenced by human passions, we have demi-gods, so stripped of human characteristics as to make us question even whether they deserve much credit for their sacrifices and deeds.

But with this process of canonization have we not lost more than we have gained, both in example and in interest? Many, no doubt, with the greatest veneration for our first citizen, have sympathized with the view expressed by Mark Twain, when he said that he was a greater man than Washington, for the latter "couldn't tell a lie, while he could, but wouldn't" We have endless biographies of Franklin, picturing him in all the public stations of life, but all together they do not equal in popularity his own human autobiography, in which we see him walking down Market Street with a roll under each arm, and devouring a third. And so it seems as if the time had come to put the shadow-boxes of humanity round our historic portraits, not because they are ornamental in themselves, but because they will make them examples, not mere idols.

If the present work succeeds in humanizing Washington, and making him a man rather than a historical figure, its purpose will have been fulfilled. In the attempt to accomplish this, Washington has, so far as is possible, been made to speak for himself, even though at times it has compelled the sacrifice of literary form, in the hope that his own words would convey a greater sense of the personality of the man. So, too, liberal drafts have been made on the opinions and statements of his contemporaries; but, unless the contrary is stated or is obvious, all quoted matter is from Washington's own pen. It is with pleasure that the author adds that the result of his study has only served to make Washington the greater to him.

The writer is under the greatest obligation to his brother, Worthington Chauncey Ford, not merely for his numerous books on Washington, of which his "Writings of George Washington" is easily first in importance of all works relating to the great American, but also for much manuscript material which he has placed at the author's service. Hitherto unpublished facts have been drawn from many other sources, but notably from the rich collection of Mr. William F. Havemeyer, of New York, from the Department of State in Washington, and from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. To Mr. S.M. Hamilton, of the former institution, and to Mr. Frederick D. Stone, of the latter, the writer is particularly indebted for assistance.

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