If the vague, yet oft-touted, religiosity of presidential wannabes remains a factor in elections these days, there may be a good historical explanation for why that is, beyond the percentage of churchgoers who vote. We’re talking George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, not that either of those two gentlemen cared much for praying and such.
Washington took his final breath in the waning days of the 18th century. He was mourned nationally on what would have been his 68th birthday, in 1800, an official day of fasting and prayer not to be repeated until 1865. Artist David Edwin’s commercial print “Apotheosis of Washington,” publicized later in 1800, shows the placid Hero rising to heaven, a “wreath of immortality” above his head. Eulogist Henry Lee, a major general and the father of Robert E. Lee, suggested that if the American Union was to prove immortal, it would be because Washington looked down upon and blessed it.
The three outstanding traits assigned to the much lamented “founding father” (the term is actually of 20th-century vintage) were his incorruptibility, courage and fairness. In life, the towering (6-foot-3) professional soldier was obviously imposing; effectively turned into a religious icon in death, he was frequently referred to as the “instrument of heaven.” This holy designation was what sealed Washington’s place as the moral exemplar of all time. Jefferson possessed the beautiful and empowering turn of phrase, Madison the glowing acumen of a constitutionalist; but Washington alone remained politically (as he was in war) bulletproof. Thanks to the invention of photography, the martyred Lincoln can still evoke tears, but among the most esteemed of presidents Washington looks best, as it were, in marble.
That earliest of presidential myths, George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie, father…” comes courtesy of the Rev. Mason Locke Weems, in a book published in 1800, and meant to inculcate patriotism––and enrich the good parson, at 25 cents a pop. “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, Faithfully Taken From Authentic Documents” was dedicated to the national father’s widow, Martha, on Washington’s first posthumous birthday, at the behest of “orphaned America.”
Washington saw his birthday celebrated during his lifetime, and stood by as his presidency was clothed in robes of quasi-royalty (certainly by modern standards), despite the pride a majority of his countrymen took in the republican ideal that dictated against ostentatious display. The Washington myth propounded by Weems took many forms beyond the cherry tree, much of which was couched in religious language. As that instrument of God, his “great name” was all his soldiers need utter in order to find courage, fight and save America from ruin. Washington was, wrote Weems retrospectively, “him, whom heaven, in mercy, not to America but to Britain and to the world, had raised up to found here a wide empire of liberty and virtue.” As a soldier, he was “the first on the field and the last off.” He proved “that virtue is the soul of courage.” Editorialized the author: “The next duty to piety is PATRIOTISM.”
The good parson’s Washington retained his heroic character as president by existing above partisanship when other mortals could not. The “unutterable curses of FACTION and PARTY, rose often in the mind of Washington, and shook his parent soul with trembling for America.” To honor his memory, then, citizens were urged to wake from all pettiness and “fly from party spirit,” which was “the only demon that can prevent favoured America from rising to the greatest and happiest among the nations.”
On the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth, in 1832, “centennial balls” were held across America. Military posts saluted with the firing of 100 guns. That week, Congress was disappointed in only one instance, when the effort to convince the patriarch’s heirs to part with his remains, that they might be removed to the Capitol to go on permanent display, failed.
In his lifetime (and at no time after), Washington had his public detractors. Cold and aloof, he was at times irritable when the roar of adulation went silent–he craved notice. During the Revolutionary War, his leadership was on a number of occasions called into question and his explosive temper noted. When he retired from the presidency in 1797, the Philadelphia newspaper editor Benjamin Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, called for rejoicing, writing disrespectfully that “an able carpenter may be a blundering tailor; and a good general may be a most miserable politician.” Others pointed to his flawed humanity, more quietly, in private letters. But his integrity, his essential honesty in political life, was never called into question.
In the quiet classic, “Red, White, and Blue Letter Days,” the historian Matthew Dennis notes that upon Lincoln’s death in 1865, banners spelled out the new message as an unmistakable allegory: “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” Dennis points out the further absurdity of president worship in his characterization of the adorably campy 1881 oil painting by Erastus Salisbury Field, which shows the foremost Revolutionary commander standing with an arm resting on the shoulder of Lincoln, the two of them flanked by Civil War generals. It is jarring, of course, but just as revealing of the unconscious need of national mourners to populate a holy pantheon. Washington gave comfort to Lincoln, as the pair were joined to personify American freedom in the abstract.