Useful Notes: George Washington

The Perpetual Frowner on your $1 bill, which was probably a good thing.

"First in War."
"First in Peace."
"First in the Hearts of his Countrymen."

"If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
King George III, upon being told that Washington intended to retire to his farm after the war ended. He did.

The "Father of His Country", George Washington (February 22, 1732 — December 14, 1799) was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States under the Constitution, beginning his term in 1789 and finishing it in 1797. He was succeeded by John Adams, and preceded by no-one, 'cause he was the first. There were a number of people who led the country as specified under the Articles of Confederation, but those are generally glossed over when most Americans think about history, mainly because the national government under the Articles was a total joke with no power whatsoever. He was the only president that wasn't from a political party; in his Farewell Address, he warned Americans against the dangers that political parties could cause.

Commander of the American forces during the Revolutionary War, as chosen by the Continental Congress. Before that, he was a Lieutenant Colonel and later Colonel during the French-and-Indian War. And before that he was the head of a small diplomatic mission to try and get the French to evacuate their forts who started the French-Indian War by bungling every conceivable aspect of the mission horribly. He was captured by the French after losing the Battle of Fort Necessity, but he was soon set free. Highlights from his command during the revolution include the Battle of Trenton (where he led a group of American soldiers across the frozen Delaware River to slaughter a bunch of Hessian mercenaries in the middle of the night on Christmas of 1776) and his encampment at Valley Forge (where his troops rested for the bitter winter of 1777-1778 - many of them died and all suffered terribly, but Washington is remembered as being very noble about the whole thing). After America's victory in 1783, Washington resigned his commission and went back to private life, leading King George III to claim that he would be "the greatest man in the world" if he actually went through with it. He was instrumental in persuading Army officers not to carry out a planned mutiny over their lack of pay. When he was unable to persuade them because of the disgrace or the fact that mutinying would not get them their pay, he tried to read a letter to them to persuade them. He had to pull out his glasses to do so, and the officers realized that his health was failing, and so refrained to avoid distressing him. Even better, according to legend, he said "Forgive me, for I have grown blind as well gray at the cause of Liberty" while doing so. Many of the men present were reportedly driven to tears. These events were instrumental in presenting him as an American Cincinnatus.

The original Articles of Confederation did not work well. As such, a new Constitution was written in 1787 (with Washington serving as the president of the Constitutional Convention), and Washington was unanimously elected President in 1788 and again in 1792. He remains, to this day, the only man ever to be elected American President by unanimous vote, which admittedly wasn't hard to accomplish, as he was essentially running unopposed (it's generally accepted among historians that the office's powers were designed with Washington's qualities and temperament in mind). His runner-up, John Adams, served as Vice President because that's how things worked back then. As president, he used a cabinet system of Secretaries (which wasn't mentioned in the Constitution) to oversee and advise him on certain issues, knowing that it would be borderline-impossible for one man to keep check of everything by himself. The tradition has been carried on by all of the succeeding presidents. Supported the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton, who was his chief-of-staff during the Revolutionary War and his Secretary of the Treasury as President; these policies included the federal government assuming the debt the states gathered as colonies and under the Article of Confederation and the creation of a national bank. Stopped the Whiskey Rebellion without using the national army (he instead used state militias) and without firing a single shot. On the foreign policy front, he announced that America would not get involved in The French Revolution and all of its resulting conflicts (resulting in a policy of American neutrality in European affairs that lasted for over a century) and oversaw improved relations with Great Britain through peaceful means and the signing of very good trade treaties. Admitted Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee to the Union, the first states that were not former colonies. During his presidency, the District of Columbia (created between Virginia and Maryland) was chosen as the permanent seat of the federal government, though he didn't live long enough to see that happen (he passed just ten and a half months before John Adams became the first President to move in, and a little over a year before the District of Columbia was formally established).

He served two terms (refusing a third, despite popular demand), then retired to live on his plantation at Mount Vernon. This set a tradition for a "maximum of two terms in office" for Presidents, which was kept until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President four times in a row, after which the Constitution was amended to have the maximum of ten years be an actual rule. (Usually it's just eight, since the President can't serve half a term, unless he was a vice president who succeeded halfway through his predecessor's term.)

The closest thing Americans have to a real-life superhero. While he might or might not have been Batman, Washington was definitely Bruce Wayne: His extensive real estate holdings made him the wealthiest man in Virginia, possibly in all North America. A man known as Parson Weems wrote many stories about Washington, including the famous one that as a child, Washington chopped down his father's prize cherry tree, but, being unable to tell a lie, promptly confessed to it. Another (equally apocryphal) story says that he was able to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Other rumors include tidbits like how his teeth were made of wood, and he was a Christian who prayed every day - though neither would have been unusual at the time. The American capital, Washington, D.C., is named for him, as is the state of Washington on the opposite side of the country (it gets confusing sometimes). Also no less than 30 counties, 27 cities and villages, 241 townships, and numerous parks, streets, and public schools throughout the United States.

And the one time a British sniper caught him unarmed, at close range, with only one guard. Washington just turned and went the other way, and the sniper couldn't bring himself to shoot a man who could so calmly face death. It's said that an Indian leader who led the attack that saw only Washington uninjured had said that Washington "is the particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle." Eerie as all heck. Although given how he died in real life (by slowly choking to death, probably either of diphtheria or a tonsillar abscess) he might have preferred a quick bullet.

Still, he did enjoy the battlefield for as long as he did, he once wrote to his brother of one of his battles saying "I heard the bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming to the sound of bullets." The contents of the letter made it all the way back to England where and unimpressed King George II, the last British monarch to lead troops in battle, reportedly remarked that Washington's attitude would change if he'd heard a few more.

Washington had also established his own spy ring during the Revolution and even used double agents to help him in his Battle of Trenton. Washington has also become a bit more popular due to Kenneth C. Davis's Don't Know Much About History, in which he paints a picture of Washington as "the plain-spoken frontiersman, not the marbleized demigod" of Weems' stories. In particular, Davis recounts an anecdote told by General Henry "Ox" Knox. In Washington's boat on the night of the Trenton crossing, Knox was 6'3" and 280lbs, making him a large man even by modern standards. As Washington got into the boat, he nudged Knox with his boot and said "Shift that fat ass, Harry. But slowly, or you'll swamp the damned boat."

By U.S. law, Washington is permanently senior to all US military officers, current, former, or future. Which means that if John J. Pershing were to be formally awarded a six-star General (General of the Armies) rank, Washington would be 7-star.

Washington was also extremely well-traveled within America, both for military and presidential purposes, at one point conducting a grand tour of all the states in the Union. You can find a plaque or exhibit claiming "Washington slept here" at just about every city and inn along the Atlantic coast—especially in Virginia.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Cannot Tell a Lie: The Trope Namer, of sorts. The story goes that when he was young, Washington chopped down his father's favorite cherry tree and afterwards confessed because he could not bring himself to lie. However, the story goes like that because it is just that: a story. Washington Irving made up the annecdote to glorify Washington's well-known real life honesty. In reality, he was an expert in misinformation, realizing that keeping the British on the wrong foot would be vital to his army's success.
  • The Hero: To most Americans, at least, thanks to Historical Hero Upgrade, particularly when portrayed by popular media. Otherwise, less so.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Every February, President's Day is celebrated, and many commercials put up his likeness and/or Abraham Lincoln to sell products. He shows up more than Abe in commercials year-round because his face is on the dollar bill.
  • Ideal Hero: Portrayed as this.
  • Memetic Badass: The EXAMPLE for the United States. Pretty much given such a legendary status as the biggest Four-Star Badass and Badass Bureaucrat ever to exist in the United States, to the point so many on the field of politics believe that if he were alive today, United States problems would disappear in a single term. Even during his lifetime people were already praising his genius comparable to the best continental Europe had during the time and a popular debate after his death was often if he could beat Napoleon Bonaparte in a war. As with Genghis Khan and Napoleon, pretty much every fictional work on the The American Revolution relies on his memetic image often to the point of Historical Badass Upgrade.
  • Reluctant Ruler: Lampshaded in the TV series Sleepy Hollow, when Ichabod—in reference to Washington's humility—notes that it's always a good idea to give power only to those who least desire it, rather than those who do. Needless to say, America has vastly benefited from Washington's being this trope, thanks to the precedent his actions set.
  • Shirtless Scene: Horatio Greenough's statue of him in a toga.
  • Sweet Tooth: According to Alton Brown, he spent $200 on ice cream over the course of one summer, "And this was a time when $10 could buy you a really fast horse."

Washington in fiction

  • Age of Empires III has him as a campaign hero in the campaigns about John Black and Nathaniel Black.
  • Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John story "Vandy, Vandy" features an appearance not of the actual Washington's ghost, but the evil-smiting myth-encrusted figure described above.
  • In the Masters of Horror episode "The Washingtonians," Washington and his descendants are revealed to be cannibals, though its more of a "campy and ridiculous" sort of horror than a real scary one. (Note that the real Washington was probably sterile.)
  • In one of the Animorphs' many time travel adventures, at one point they're sent back to the Revolutionary War, just as Washington's about to cross the Delaware. Marco steals George's spare boots because his feet are cold. His friend Jake later gets shot in the head, prompting the first major timeline divergence in the series.
  • The cartoon Time Squad always portrayed Washington as The Cape whenever he appeared... except for the episode that opened with him going on a psychotic rampage in the Squad's space station. (It was an Unwinnable Training Simulation, simulating what would happen if they dropped The Masquerade for him.)
  • Highly ambiguous character in the Illuminatus! trilogy.
  • Appears in Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. As a fellow surveyor he talks shop with the protagonists before they set out to draw their Line. Then, Pynchon being Pynchon, the three of them test out Mt. Vernon's latest hemp crop, leading to dancing on the porch while Martha fetches in the munchies.
  • The Fairly OddParents depicts him as a maniac with an axe with an uncontrollable urge to chop wood (because why else would he chop down his father's prize cherry tree, then immediately confess?).
  • Day Of The Tentacle has him lounging about with the founding fathers.
  • Quite a few pages are dedicated to his exploits in The Lost Symbol.
  • Histeria depicts him as talking like Bob Hope (both were famous for making speeches to the troops).
  • How I Met Your Mother. According to Barney Stinson. George and Benjamin Franklin were friends with Barnabus Stinson (Barney's ancestor) who wrote "The Bro Code". George and Ben also once did a "Devil's Threeway".
  • Washington, Washington, six-foot-eight, weighs a fucking ton...
  • In Nightmare Ned, he shows up as a talking quarter when the Tooth Fairy is about to rip out his teeth, saying that even without teeth he became president.
  • A Cahill from the Tomas branch in The 39 Clues.
  • Snoopy every so often talked (or pretended to talk) to the then-general during the Valley Forge winter. Being the World Famous Patriot didn't prevent Snoopy from tossing in some Anachronism Stew, including at one point offering to let Washington drive a Zamboni at a proposed ice-skating rink.
  • In James Fenimore Cooper's 1820 novel The Spy, a romance thriller based during the Revolution, the identity of the Rebel spymaster is revealed at novel's end to be George Washington. Washington was a so-so general but an absolute master of counter intelligence. He got the British to swallow some real whoppers, so much for never telling a lie.
  • Bob Newhart did a Standup Comedy routine about a soldier in Washington's army complaining, as soldiers always have and always will. It starts with the sound of tramping feet and the words:
    You hear what Nutty George did last night? The dollar across the Potomac — they didn't tell you about that? Had us up till three in the morning looking for the damned thing.
  • Deadliest Warrior has George Washington go up against Napoleon Bonaparte. George barely manages to win over Napoleon.
  • Portrayed as The Eeyore in the musical 1776, where he never appears but his letters from the front line are a constant discouragement to the Continental Congress.
  • David Drake's Into the Hinterlands is essentially a retelling of George Washington's early career IN SPACE!
  • Dan's target of the week in Dan Vs. "George Washington". He believes that George Washington chopped down a palm tree that wrecked his car, since an axe with the initials G.W. carved into handle was still stuck in the tree. Chris and Elise try to convince Dan that Washington couldn't have done it since a) the cherry tree thing is a myth and b) he's been dead for over two centuries. Dan believes that Washington's ghost wrecked his car, and travels to Washington's home to commit vandalism as payback. The ending confirms Dan's theory.
  • Gore Vidal's novel Burr deals, via the viewpoint of Colonel Aaron Burr, the winner of the Hamilton-Burr duel, with the history of the American revolution and the entire generation of the Founding Fathers. Burr in his memoirs is quite critical of Washington as a general, however he has more positive regard for Washington as a politician and leader, pointing out his shrewdness, his skills as The Chessmaster and his leadership which brought American governance to life.
  • Washington's execution is the Point of Divergence in the alternate-history/Libertarian fantasy comic book The Probability Broach. The author claims that Washington's handling of the Whiskey Rebellion was the beginnings of over-reaching federal power in America. The man who got Washington convicted is then elected President, and promptly disbands any federal infrastructure, creating the "North American Confederacy."
  • In The Two Georges by Harry Turtledove, Washington is responsible for a different point of divergence ... it's his leadership of a diplomatic mission to Britain that heads off the Revolution in the first place, keeping America a loyal and valued part of the British Empire. The book's title comes from a painting of George Washington and George III together, each surrounded by his associates.
  • According to the immense fresco on the ceiling of the United States Capitol Building, he became a god.
  • In the episode of The Simpsons "Lisa the Iconoclast", he appears to Lisa as a vision to scold her when she considers giving up her effort to expose Jebidiah Springfield as a fraud. ("We had quitters during the Revolution, too," says Washington. "We called them 'Kentuckians'.") He also appears in a cameo, along with Albert Einstein and William Shakespeare, in one "Treehouse of Horror" episode as a zombie, but has no speaking role.
  • Portrayed by David Morse in HBO's John Adams.
  • In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, he is said to be a son of Athena.
  • Washington is a major character in Assassin's Creed III and an ally of protagonist Connor Kenway. There is also an Alternate Universe DLC titled "The Tyranny of King Washington", which explores the possibility of what if Washington did in fact become the King of America.
    • Washington's role in the series has been hinted at as early on as Assassin's Creed II, where he is shown in the glyph puzzles to have possessed a Piece of Eden. Following the hallucination he experiences in The Tyranny of King Washington showing how he would become a mad tyrant under its influence, he begs Connor to take it and throw it into the sea. His last scene shows him outraged at the very suggestion that he become a monarch with absolute power.
    • Washington also has a cameo in Assassin's Creed: Rogue during his courtship of Martha Dandridge. One of the few times in fiction to depict Washington with his red hair. His half-brother Lawrence has a more prominent role as a Templar that wants to keep George out of the Secret War.
  • In Bioshock Infinite he's revered to saint like levels, along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
  • Stalemated Abraham Lincoln on Celebrity Deathmatch.
  • The Crossing, a 2000 made-for-TV movie about Crossing of the Delaware, starring Jeff Daniels. Makes a concerted effort to show Washington as a human being, along with just how desperate the first year of the Revolution was.
  • In the live action segment of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Mario and Luigi decided to turn their home into a boarding house and tried to lure potential guests with a sign reading "George Washington Slept Here". Washington came back to haunt them for that lie. In the animated one, they helped a Washington Expy to defeat Koopa, who was dressed like a British soldier.
  • Woody Woodpecker once told his nephew and his niece Washington was trying to hit one of Woody's ancestors when he took down the cherry tree.
  • He spits verses against William Wallace in Epic Rap Battles of History.
  • The children's novel George Washington's Socks by Elvira Woodruff involves two children going back in time in an old wooden rowboat to the night of the Delaware crossing. A great example of exploring the harsher details of history, very true in its depiction of Washington as good but quite human, and rather funny too. (And yes, the socks do come up at the end of the adventure.)
  • Played by Ian Kahn in Turn, as a recurring character in series 1 and then a regular in series 2. The series 2 episode "Valley Forge" notably gives some focus to his relationships with his deceased older brother Lawrence and his slave/manservant Will Lee.
  • Washington is a Posthumous Character in Sleepy Hollow. In addition to fighting the Revolutionary War Washington directed the efforts of the supernatural war going on behind the scenes. In present day Ichabod Crane (who was Washington's agent and giant fanboy) keeps finding things Washington left behind to help Crane.
  • In Hamilton, a Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, Washington is portrayed by Christopher Jackson.