George Washington, Meet Stephen Colbert

By Terry Hulsey

George Washington, without the wig, showing a receding hairline, steps out onstage after the introduction by Stephen Colbert and nods slightly to the audience. He does not wave; his controlled smile does not reveal his teeth. Dressed in a dark blue business suit and black tie, he towers over Colbert as they shake hands. Mr. Washington is still folding himself down into the guest chair as the banter begins.

“Say, nice threads, George,” says Colbert.

Mr. Washington blinks his blue-gray eyes twice before catching on. “Nice suit? Yes, thank you,” he says.

“But, George, you really seem more like a CEO than a guy who’s just spent two years in the woods being chased by the Feds: out of Manhattan, up the Hudson, and out of Jersey.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” he says, with the hint of a smile. Either his voice is easily voluble, or there’s something grave about it that commands attention.

“Yeah, as your Rolling Stone interview said, all the press conferences given by the DEA named you the nation’s top terrorist threat.”

“A terrorist kills innocent women and children, so the term is more accurately applied to those other than myself or my followers. I concede, however, to having engaged in what you term ‘asymmetrical warfare.’ ”

“Yeah, say, don’t get too deep on us, buddy. But what about the interview thing? I mean George Washington and all, and right there in Rolling Stone magazine.”

“I am informed that it has broad democratic appeal.”

Yet give Mr. Washington modern clothes and a modern haircut, even fix his teeth, and somehow he remains distant.

His character
The distance between him and ourselves can’t be measured in character, although that’s considerable. Possibly the single most important aspect of Washington’s character is his combination of aloofness and gentleness, in a way entirely foreign to our age. It allowed him to quash an officers’ rebellion in Newburgh, New York in March, 1783. Although the British had been defeated at Yorktown two years earlier, the officers had not been paid, and, led by Alexander Hamilton, were actually thinking of leaving their commissions and exposing the country to the British, who still held New York City. He walked unexpectedly into their angry meeting and while preparing to read from notes spoke the following words:

Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.

The officers, made ashamed, and some fighting back tears, raised a clamor of support for him, and the conspiracy was finished. And although the words were not his – they were from his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy, which also supplied Nathan’s Hale’s “Give me liberty or give me death” – their effect could only have come through him.

It was said that whenever he entered a room a hush fell over it. This persona, so unnatural to an age prurient in its desire to make the private public, seemed fitting to Washington himself for several reasons. It was foremost a tool of leadership, whereby a cool or even marble exterior instantly inspired confidence in Washington the general. Also, it was a mask for his profound sympathy for the sufferings of his troops. And finally, it even seems the reward of his virtue, the willing tribute of a public who did not find it feigned or pompous or unnatural in the least. As Abigail Adams put it:

[Washington] has a dignity which forbids familiarity, mixed with an easy affability which creates love and reverence.

And a French officer found his face

something grave and serious, but it is never stern, and, on the contrary, becomes softened by the most gracious and amiable smile. He is affable and converses with his officers familiarly and gaily.

This character was not forged by his experience as the commander of the new republic’s armies. Indeed, although he was a natural leader, he was not a great general, and had a conspicuous dislike of war, whose destructive scope he always tried to limit. As Congressman Charles Carroll, a leader of the “bring it on” variety, complained

He is so humane and delicate that I fear the common cause will suffer…. The man cannot be too much admired and lamented. [J.T. Flexner, ISBN 0316286168, p.106]

Another great character trait, one that allowed him to succeed as a general was, let us call it, his implacable modesty. It allowed him to learn the two decisive advantages of the Continental Army: its superior mobility, and its possession of the popular will, which he recognized as more important than battalions. Regarding the latter, Washington wrote

Popular expectations should always be complied with where injury in the execution is not apparent, especially in such a contest as the one we are engaged in, where the spirit and willingness of the people must in a great measure take place of coercion.

His faith
Washington does not come any closer to anyone by being called a fellow Christian. It is true that his habit was to rise before 5 a.m. to read and meditate upon Scripture – with the Bible open on a chair and Washington before it on his knees. Yet the word “Jesus” was almost never on his lips. He most often referred to god, even in letters to his wife, as Providence – a being inspiring awe and mystically aiding the steadfastly virtuous, a god far from the chipper business partner of Norman Vincent Peale and farther still from the personal improvement counselor of the televangelists. His was not a god of happy talk, but the “Governor of the Universe” brooding over the future happiness of the virtuous.

His flaws
Biographers of the modern stripe reach almost reflexively for a presentation of human shortcomings. They suppose that by finding the dirty secrets of a man that they have his clockspring. These failings, they suppose, will drive his decisions (to compensate for them, to hide them, etc.). For these little men, character is destiny, and a wart is predestination.

It can be easily said that Washington had failings. He liked to play cards; he liked to drink; and he liked, we may put it, the pleasure of women other than his betrothed. But even in the latter, he is nothing like us. He didn’t have “affairs” in the modern sense of an attempt “find oneself” or to expand a miserably lonely consciousness. He just enjoyed sex, in an almost casual or Latin way. May as well let the very modern Erica Jong say it: it was “zipless” sex. But this was the commonplace in an age before ours, when now sex is really much less fun – and almost never “zipless” – because it is freighted with psychological needs that just weren’t felt in the past.

The most notable of his personal failings was his volcanic temper, which he managed to control. Indeed, his recognition of the fact that it was his responsibility alone to control it gives us an insight into the man and his age. He wrote:

Our actions, depending upon ourselves, may be controlled, whilst the powers of thinking, originating in higher causes, cannot always be molded to our wishes.

An entire book could be written in unpacking that one sentence! The modern says exactly the opposite on both points: that our actions are often outside our control, and that our thoughts are always our unique property. But for Washington, the first clause implies the rejection of all predetermining agents: no nature or nurture, no Freud or society relieves us from responsibility for any of our actions. The second clause provides a unique defense for freedom of speech and thought: that we not only may think of anything, but that we are not necessarily responsible for what we think, that we are at least sometimes passive hosts for ideas – and that this is a good thing. This one clause is the complete antithesis of modernity, for the modern view insists on uniqueness or novelty as the very definition of personality. According to this modern view, it is what we have invented, our unique thoughts, our personal way of expressing something, yes, our so very important cleverness, our style, that define us. And if we have no ideas, cleverness, or style, then it is our own peculiar bundle of tastes, whims, and personal tics that define us. The modern treads the earth as the First Man: he has nothing in common with those who preceded him; they were the slave owners, the bigots, the chauvinists while he is the pinnacle of all human progress. But note how very opposite is Washington’s view. The very act of thinking is not personal – it is a communion with causes higher than ourselves. This has nothing to do with abstraction as such. Washington implies that thinking is a communion with powers that lift us out of the petty confines of our selves, away from the little box of our own cleverness, and toward something universal and permanent.

Stepping outside one’s own age is very difficult, but understanding this one sentence brings us into Washington’s world, and indeed into the entire world prior to the modern “mind set.”

His mental landscape
Of course the true way to understanding a historical figure’s “mental landscape” – the commonly shared assumptions of an age – lies in extensive reading from that age. By this reading we can sensibly declare that this person or that person possessed the “mind of eighteenth century America.” But there is another sense in which we can say that this or that is the expression, not of the mind of an age, but of a particular mind. This latter sense is revealed by style of expression. For example, everyone can identify the particular expressive style of Mencken, Voltaire, G.K. Chesterton, or Laurence Sterne (whose Tristram Shandy provided the introduction for Thomas Jefferson and his wife).

In Washington’s writing we see a mind that revolves each idea slowly, ponderously some would say. It wants to consider multiple aspects; it is very fond of contrast by antithesis – not in the dramatic sunlight-and-shadows way of, say, Victor Hugo, but in the way of someone who is striving above all for completeness. His first inaugural address as well as his famous Farewell Address offer conspicuous examples of this style. Some may argue that these are not representative of him, since the first is present only in fragments and the latter was edited by the Federalist Papers trio (Madison, Hamilton, and Jay), but Washington was responsible for the final version of the Address, and it is so like his other writings, that I think it speaks with his particular voice. Parts of the Address are frankly tiresome, but it reveals a mind that, once seizing a principle, is forceful and without a quibble:

Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant – and a fearful master.

As we should remember him
In some way everyone, from a five-year-old to a TV personality, can be said to know Washington.

Helen, my precocious five-year-old, found my laptop open and contributed the following, which I really don’t want to erase:

George was a person who was loyal, graceful, and caring. We must remember him in our hearts. He was a great leader. People still visit his home and the Capitol this day. George was also burryed [sic] by his home.

But Jefferson, a close friend of over 30 years, provides the best succinct image:

Perhaps the strongest feature in [Washington’s] character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath. In his expenses he was honorable, but exact; liberal in contributions to whatever promised utility; but frowning and unyielding on all visionary projects and all unworthy calls on his charity.... His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.