George Washington's Perceived Morality and Virtue

In general, as a part of the legacy of George Washington, tales of his uprightness and adherence to strict moral guidelines are plentiful. Even before his death, Washington was perceived to be a selfless man who only cared about the American people and the ideals of freedom that their new nation was founded on. Every time Washington was asked to hold a position of great power or influence (such as the Commander in Chief of the colonial army, the President of the Constitutional Convention, and the first President of the United States of America), he was always said to have accepted these positions with hesitation and a sense of deep humility. Those closest to him knew that this perceived humility was probably not entirely genuine, since Washington was a wildly ambitious man who worked hard his entire life to land himself the positions that he earned. Still, the fact that he not appear power-hungry was a very important image to portray to the American people, who had fought against a power-hungry monarchy for their personal freedoms. In his Farewell Address to the nation after his second term in office, President Washington fervently told the American public that "[o]f all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports." Furthermore, in the early 1800's, just a few years after George Washington's death, books and short stories telling of his virtue were introduced into the curriculum of grammar schools all across the United States. One such very well-known book, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington, published in 1800 and authored by Mason Locke Weems, includes perhaps the most famous tale of Washington's uprightness: the story of George and the cherry tree. According to this story, a young Washington is confronted by his father after cutting down a cherry tree with an axe. When asked by his father if he did indeed chop down the tree, George is reported to have replied: "Father, I can not tell a lie: I cut the tree." Although this story was later recognized by most to be fiction, it was used in elementary schools primarily as a way to teach the virtue of honesty to young children. Another tale of his virtue comes from his time as Commander in Chief during the Revolutionary War. Captured in both the accounts of Weem as well as an iconic painting by Henry Brueckner in the 1860s, the story of George Washington kneeling down in the snow to pray for the protection and provision of his troops during the colonial army's tough winter at Valley Forge captures a sense of humility that has also been ascribed to Washington. Additionally, this story of the praying George Washington was perhaps a part of a plan by the author Weems to tag George Washington as a religiously devout man who had a personal belief in God and was a practicing Christian. However, history seems to tell us otherwise. Although Washington regularly attended a Protestant church, he was not remembered in his time as being a convert to Christianity. Some proof for this theory is that he never participated in communion at his church, expressed belief in a Deity but never explicitly described the God of the Bible or made mention to Jesus, and he did not ask for a minister on his deathbed. Some of the backlash to Weems seemingly whitewashed approach to the character of Washington came about one hundred years after the publishing of Weems famous books. The backlash presented itself as a group of biographers who wanted to present the historic character in a more truthful light, instead of accentuating and even making up or exaggerating only his virtuous features. It has been suggested that Weems accounts of Washington were written mostly to create an icon out of George Washington. As the general who freed the American colonies from British tyranny and as the first elected President of the U.S., if Washington could just be remembered as a man who was as virtuous in private as he was in public, then perhaps the new nation of the United States would grow up holding the same ideals that their first leader was said to have held.

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