He left as fair a reputation as ever belonged to a human character…. Midst all the sorrowings that are mingled on this melancholy occasion I venture to assert that none could have felt his death with more regret than I, because no one had higher opinions of his worth…. There is this consolation, though, to be drawn, that while living no man could be more esteemed, and since dead none is more lamented.
—Washington, on the Death of Tilghman
Dean Stanley has said that all the gods of ancient mythology were once men, and he traces for us the evolution of a man into a hero, the hero into a demigod, and the demigod into a divinity. By a slow process, the natural man is divested of all our common faults and frailties; he is clothed with superhuman attributes and declared a being separate and apart, and is lost to us in the clouds.
When Greenough carved that statue of Washington that sits facing the Capitol, he unwittingly showed how a man may be transformed into a Jove.
But the world has reached a point when to be human is no longer a cause for apology; we recognize that the human, in degree, comprehends the divine.
Jove inspires fear, but to Washington we pay the tribute of affection. Beings hopelessly separated from us are not ours: a god we can not love, a man we may. We know Washington as well as it is possible to know any man. We know him better, far better, than the people who lived in the very household with him. We have his diary showing “how and where I spent my time”; we have his journal, his account-books (and no man was ever a more painstaking accountant); we have hundreds of his letters, and his own copies and first drafts of hundreds of others, the originals of which have been lost or destroyed.
From these, with contemporary history, we are able to make up a close estimate of the man; and we find him human–splendidly human. By his books of accounts we find that he was often imposed upon, that he loaned thousands of dollars to people who had no expectation of paying; and in his last will, written with his own hand, we find him canceling these debts, and making bequests to scores of relatives; giving freedom to his slaves, and acknowledging his obligation to servants and various other obscure persons. He was a man in very sooth. He was a man in that he had in him the appetites, the ambitions, the desires of a man. Stewart, the artist, has said, “All of his features were indications of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forest, he would have been the fiercest man among savage tribes.”
But over the sleeping volcano of his temper he kept watch and ward, until his habit became one of gentleness, generosity, and shining, simple truth; and, behind all, we behold his unswerving purpose and steadfast strength.
And so the object of this sketch will be, not to show the superhuman Washington, the Washington set apart, but to give a glimpse of the man Washington who aspired, feared, hoped, loved and bravely died.
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The first biographer of George Washington was the Reverend Mason L. Weems. If you have a copy of Weems’ “Life of Washington,” you had better wrap it in chamois and place it away for your heirs, for some time it will command a price. Fifty editions of Weems’ book were printed, and in its day no other volume approached it in point of popularity. In American literature, Weems stood first. To Weems are we indebted for the hatchet tale, the story of the colt that was broken and killed in the process, and all those other fine romances of Washington’s youth. Weems’ literary style reveals the very acme of that vicious quality of untruth to be found in the old-time Sunday-school books. Weems mustered all the “Little Willie” stories he could find, and attached to them Washington’s name, claiming to write for “the Betterment of the Young,” as if in dealing with the young we should carefully conceal the truth. Possibly Washington could not tell a lie, but Weems was not thus handicapped.