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George Washington, a legend in his own time, stood as symbol for national unity before there was ever a nation. From the onset of the Revolutionary War to his last days in office as President of the United States, Washington held the hopes of the nation in his hands. In this chapter, Ellis uses both hindsight and foresight to examine the power of myth, and how this individual's power became mythic partially because of how he used it.
Ellis compares Washington the legend to Washington the man from the historical perspective of hindsight. History has revealed that Washington was not a handsome man; he was pockmarked with large feet and hands, and had decayed teeth and sunken eye sockets. He was always a head taller than the other Founding Fathers, which had prompted John Adams to remark that the reason Washington was always chosen as leader was because he was always the tallest man in the room. Taken on their own, his features were an oddity, but combined with an inherent honesty and earnest willingness to defend his ideals, his physical appearance became “sheer majesty.” A combination of bravado, intellect, and cultured aloofness, Washington was king-like even without a title. Considering all this, there was little chance that he would ever have avoided the attacks that plagued his Presidency.
The press, which becomes a character in itself in its chapter, ultimately became an antagonist to Washington. Ellis introduces Benjamin Franklin Bache in this chapter as a personification of sensationalist newsman. In spearheading attacks that Washington was a “quasi-king,” Bache and his contemporaries were feeding the flames of a national schism. This role of the press is stressed even more in the later chapters.
Interestingly, Ellis does defend some of the claims against Washington's majestic nature. His figure was reflected on myriad iconography, which can only be linked to contemporary celebrity. His image was painted and sketched onto the surfaces of household items, as well as replicated in stone. He was a god among men, which naturally troubled those figures who already worried that the government was too powerful. Perhaps the most fascinating and moving aspect of this story is that Washington remained aware of the limits and potential of his power, and yet never allowed it to control him. He acknowledged what he could do, and then accomplished his greatest legacy by refusing to wield that power. He stepped down, and so ensured his country's survival.
In fact, posterity and legacy is quite prominent in this chapter. Washington did worry that the attacks of Jefferson and the Republicans - that he was senile, weak, and cruel - would ultimately tarnish his reputation should he remain in office. In hindsight, many of the decisions that caused controversy - like Jay's Treaty or his handling of the Whiskey Rebellion - have proved wise, but he could not be certain that history would judge that way. Through retiring, he was considering posterity both for his own sake and for their sake. He wanted to be remembered well, but he also wanted to ensure that his presidency strengthened rather than weakened the union. It is telling that the Farewell Address was addressed to the people, and not to politicians. He was acting for the sake of his beloved public, and he wanted them to know it.
Of course, Washington's final plea for unity would not cede the schism that would only intensify during Adams's presidency. However, he had done what was in his power, and history has judged him well for it. George Washington remains one of the most popular Presidents in history, perhaps because of his unfailing belief in the potential of the nation. His last words, “Tis well,” perfectly reflect his hope for the nation and for his own lasting legacy.