The Myths of George Washington


On February 24, in honor of George Washington’s birthday, I attended a lecture at the Virginia Historical Society about the creation of George Washington myths. The speaker was Edward G. Lengel, a history professor at the University of Virginia and, more to the point, the director of the Washington Papers for the past 15 years. He has just published a book, INVENTING GEORGE WASHINGTON: AMERICA’S FOUNDER, IN MYTH AND MEMORY, that deals with Washington myths. As someone who has spent years working with some 140,000 Washington letters, papers, and diaries, he probably knows old George better than anyone alive. His talk was recorded to be shown later on the Book Channel, but no specific date or time was given, so I can’t steer you to that. However, here is the link to his very interesting NPR interview a couple days ago.

Or listen to a three-minte snippet here:

Lengel start his presentation by reviewing several of the thousands of legends and myths that have grown up about Washington. Some are funny (a GW diary was recently discovered in Scotland that mentions the general coming across greenish men who lived in aluminum cones at Valley Forge and they helped him get through the winter), some are annoying (GW grew marijuana at Mount Vernon and smoked it often), and some are infuriating (GW had a child by a slave girl). The first myth-maker, “Parson” Weems, understood that biography was not enough, that stories would bring Washington to the people. Weems realized that a series of anecdotes would make him into a real human being and create a sense of connection to the great man.

The myths about Washington being a great lover, a Lothario, made him appeal to men and women alike, although Lengel said the evidence is all to the contrary. These are the myths about Sally Fairfax and others that portray Martha as dowdy, stupid, and dour, forcing him, in effect, to find romance elsewhere. Facts are to the contrary–Martha was pretty, vivacious, intelligent, and there is not a shred of evidence that Washington was unfaithful.

The pious Christian image that came about during a pious time in American history (the mid-late 19th century) made GW appealing to very religious people. This is the time that the image of GW praying in the snow at Valley Forge was invented, as well as his supposed baptism in the river–Potomac, Hudson, Schuylkill, it changes place depending upon the teller. These events made people feel that GW was “one of us.” Actually, Lengel says, the evidence is all to the contrary. GW was not an atheist, not a Diest, not an evangelical Christian, and not interested in theology. He did go to church sometimes, where he made a point of never kneeling or taking communion, and didn’t mention Jesus on his deathbed. He was, however, a very moral man, one who was influenced more by the philosophy of Stoicism than any particular religion, and he respected all faiths, even attended many churches such as Catholic and Jewish synagogues.

Some myths are simply statements that GW was supposed to have said, according to Glen Beck or some other announcer. Lengel says his office gets frequent questions from reporters asking whether it is true that GW said such-and-such, and most often, it is not. So Lengel’s office acts as a sort of Snopes for GW!

Lengel concluded that the myths serve an important purpose. We want them to be true because they seem to bring Washington into our lives. We still need him and want him to be real. His talk, which lasted only about 40 minutes, was most interesting. I learned a lot! The large lecture hall was literally packed. I hope you get the chance to hear his entire talk on the Book Channel.


One Response to The Myths of George Washington

  1. Deborah Brower says:

    As always, GREAT post. Timely for me too because of the research I’ve been doing on the career of John Hanson (see reply to prior posting). I immediately got the book and love the quote from Mark Twain that opens the book. “The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.”

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