Useful Notes / George Washington

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

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

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 his vice president, John Adams.

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 fact, he hated the idea of the political party so much that in his Farewell Address, he warned Americans against the dangers that political parties could cause. Needless to say, that was one piece of advice that went unheeded by the American people.

Commander of the American forces during The American Revolution, 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. His runner-up, John Adams, served as Vice President because that's how things worked back then. This achievement must be qualified however. For one thing, Washington was running unopposed, and for another, the suffrage was far more limited than it would be for his successors. But nonetheless Washington would have likely won even without these qualifications since he was one of the most famous people in the world in the 1780s and 1790s, a global celebrity renowned not only in America, but also in England and Europe. Washington's quiet retirement wasn't quite so peaceful precisely because he was plagued by a never-ending stream of visitors and fans who wanted to meet the great hero of the American Revolution, and these visits were draining his coffers, since as a host he had to accommodate his guests and play nice to them, as per the aristocratic customs of the global intelligentsia. The fallout over the Articles of Confederation also made Washington feel that a more stable form of institutions needed to be put in place, so as to preserve stability, and also to better protect his considerably large estate and great wealth (until the 45th President of the United States, Washington was the richest man to hold the office of President).

It's been argued, by Gore Vidal among others, that Washington, while putting a public face as a reluctant non-partisan statesman, privately sought the office of Presidency as an office to guard and protect his property and interests, and as a sinecure to find a better public role with which he could manage his fame, and the expenses that it brought him. 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. Washington as President was very keen for putting himself above the fray, and largely presided over the debate of his cabinet and fellow colleagues. This served him well since it prevented his name from being associated with policies that could make him controversial and polarizing to other figures. Washington was quite keen, for both personal reasons and for historical reasons, to be the symbol of all Americans, and he was quite conscious of his status as the Hero of the American Revolution, and to preserve that, he often let his subordinates conduct policies as they saw fit. Washington devoted a lot of attention to what we would call "image politics". He was quite keen that portraits don't present him with his ugly teeth, and publicly he would wear heavy make-up to better preserve his appearance. He was also, for a man of his time, widely traveled. He would travel across the USA to all the states existing at the time, which was the Republican equivalent of the royal progress. At one point, he conducted 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. This impressed upon American citizens the idea and image of the President, not merely as an official and Head of State but as an active politician voted and elected by the people.

Privately, he did support 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. He also 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). Today he's remembered for his warning of the dangers of partisanship in his closing Presidential address, but one must remember that such a stance was not really available or possible to other political figures of his generation, or to those who came after and in the context of the time, it was a thinly veiled Take That! on Thomas Jefferson and his political campaigns (with whom he had a personal falling-out over on account of a political attack ad that Jefferson had put in a newspaper under one of his lackeys but then lied to Washington that it wasn't him, only for Washington — a brilliant spymaster and all around social expert — to immediately see through it).

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 note , 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.

The man was Immune to Bullets. Really. George Washington was the only officer to emerge un-wounded from the ambush of General Braddock's Army in 1755. He had two horses shot out from under him and afterwards discovered several bullet holes in his clothes. Later in the French and Indian War he managed to emerge unharmed from a friendly fire incident in which he'd ridden between the lines of firing soldiers knocking muskets out of line with his sword.

And there's 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 a tribal leader who led the attack on Braddock's column 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 an 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.


Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Cannot Tell a Lie: The Trope Naming cherry tree story... is actually an example of another trope entirely.
  • Cincinnatus: One of the things mostly brought up to demonstrate his honesty in portrayals is how he was reluctant to accept the Presidency, served out his two terms mostly because the fledgling country needed a strong leader, and retired to go live on his farm at the end of it all.
  • Four-Star Badass: Easily the second most important thing portrayed about him after being the first President of the United States is that he received a commission as a General and was appointed as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. That said, several years after the war ended (and the Continental Army disbanded), President John Adams commissioned Washington as a Lieutenant General and appointed him Commander of the United States Army, which at the time was relatively small and had no four-star generals.
  • General Failure: Something that is slowly brought up more and more in modern media is howhe is seen by many historians as an average general. His strategies were often overcomplicated with too many moving parts, leading to something invariably not going to plan. In the American Revolution he lost more battles than he won, not to mention how he began the American component of the Seven Years War, and prior to the Revolution his largest command had been a single regiment. That being said, he did mastermind a few of the Continental Army's greatest victories, such as the back-to-back battles of Trenton and Princeton, the taking of Boston, and Yorktown, and even some of his defeats (such as Germantown) were near things. And when things did go wrong, he was an actual genius at getting his forces out of a jam in good fighting order and keeping his army intact. He also had an incredible ability to inspire devotion and loyalty in his men, for an example see that time when he defeated a pay mutiny all by himself by simply appealing to the men's patriotism.
  • 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. Also appeared in commercials in 1997 to promote the Sacagawea dollar coin.
  • Memetic Badass: The archetypal 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. This even extends to the US military itself: He's still the highest ranking soldier in the US military, with 6 stars. And to make sure of it, everyone in the US military are legally forbidden from outranking his 6-stars. A good example is Steven Spielberg's biopic of Lincoln where a fellow Memetic Badass invokes his example:
    Abraham Lincoln: The whole world knows that nothing will make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington.
  • 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. It was the code of political honor at the time for politicians to invoke this, and everyone made a show about how much they didn't want political office, and it's debated by historians how much of this was public image and how much Washington was really reluctant.
  • Shirtless Scene: Horatio Greenough's statue of him in a toga.
  • The Social Expert: How Gore Vidal portrays him in his Burr where the title character, despite being critical of Washington, can't help but admire his brilliant and skillful management of people and personnel. Historians are starting to see Washington as this, noting that as a spymaster and master of espionage, he was certainly skilled at identifying and sizing up people and that served him well in politics.
  • 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."
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: 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 anecdote 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.
  • Wolverine Publicity: He tends to get this in any discussion of American history and the American Revolution. A fact which John Adams himself complained about at the time. He was extremely important for American, and global, history, but it must be noted that Washington had very little role in the Boston Tea Party and the early parts of the Revolution and he only came on the scene as a behind-the-scenes colonial property-owning landholder. As Commander in Chief, he was actually a fairly mediocre general who never really won any battles and he had little participation on the decisive American victories (such as Saratoga, which is what convinced France to back the Colonists). Washington was a far more effective spymaster than a general. He had no involvement in authoring the Declaration of Independence and is not included among its signatories, very little say in the writing of the Constitution and its debate (Madison, Adams and Hamilton were far more relevant), and as President, he more or less tried to be above-the-fray and rarely interfered in any of the debates or proposed his own policies.


Washington in fiction

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    Art 
  • The Apotheosis of Washington is religious fresco in the style of the Sistine Chapel which depicts Washington becoming a god. It adorns the ceiling of the Capitol Building and shows Washington sitting in-between Victory and Liberty while dressed in a regal purple.

    Comic Strips 
  • Peanuts: 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.

    Film 
  • 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.

    Literature 
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Quite a few pages are dedicated to his exploits in The Lost Symbol.
  • A Cahill from the Tomas branch in ''The 39 Clues.
  • 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 counterintelligence. He got the British to swallow some real whoppers, so much for never telling a lie.
  • David Drake's The Citizen Series is essentially a retelling of George Washington's early career IN SPACE!, with Allen Allenson playing the role.
  • 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.
  • In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, he is said to be a son of Athena.
  • 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.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.)
  • 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".
  • Deadliest Warrior has George Washington go up against Napoleon Bonaparte. George barely manages to win over Napoleon.
  • Portrayed by David Morse in HBO's John Adams.
  • 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.
  • 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 Sons of Liberty he's played by Jason O'Mara, and in the final scene turns the Declaration of Independence into a Rousing Speech as his men prepare to defend against General Thomas Gage's attack on New York Harbor.

    Theatre 
  • 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.
  • In Hamilton, a Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, Washington is portrayed by Christopher Jackson. One of the major plotlines involves Washington's fatherly relationship with Hamilton, and how the latter's life went downhill after the man retired.

    Video Games 
  • Age of Empires III has him as a campaign hero in the campaigns about John Black and Nathaniel Black.
  • Day of the Tentacle has him lounging about with the founding fathers.
  • 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.
  • Assassin's Creed:
    • 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 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 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.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • 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.)
  • 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 prized cherry tree, then immediately confess?).
  • Histeria! depicts him as talking like Bob Hope (both were famous for making speeches to the troops).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Stalemated Abraham Lincoln on Celebrity Deathmatch.
  • 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.
  • An episode of Dexter's Laboratory had Mandark turn the George Washington portion of Mount Rushmore into a giant golem/mecha; Dexter responds by animating the Lincoln Memorial. The "golems" stop fighting when they realize they're Not So Different and walk off arms-over-shoulders to have a friendly conversation.

    Other 
  • 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.
  • David Morse also voices Washington at the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World.
  • According to the immense fresco on the ceiling of the United States Capitol Building, he became a god.

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