Virginians on Olympus: A Cultural Analysis of Four Great Men

By Marshall William Fishwick | Go to book overview

III
George Washington The Virginian as Revolutionary

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.... His example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.

REPRESENTATIVE HENRY LEE,
"Oration Before Congress,"
December 26, 1799

WHEN the eighteen ton statue of Washington now in Richmond's Capitol Park arrived from Amsterdam in 1858, no horses were employed to transport it. A team of human beings drew the massive figure to its site, for Virginians would not accord this privilege to animals. So highly venerated had the first president become in the Old Dominion during the 1850's that Governor Henry A. Wise had felt it necessary to say of Washington:

I came to call you to a study of his life -- to search for the secret springs of his action and his success.... Reverence for his memory has mistaken the uses of his fame, until his example has been so extolled by almost impious errors of praise as to make imitation by our youth almost hopeless.

1

It was much too late, however, to plead for a purely historical conception of the Father of his Country; Washington had become not only a symbol, but a demigod, for the American people. They were no longer concerned with mere facts. The criticism that had been raised against him during his presidency had been silenced, and the shortcomings which many of his contemporaries were well aware of had been forgotten. Virginia was no more devoted to the memory of her most famous native son than were other states of the Union. Massachusett s' favorite son, Daniel Webster, expressed the view of many in that commonwealth when he said, " America has furnished

____________________
1
The plea appears in a speech Wise gave at the unveiling of a copy of Houdon's "Washington" on the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, Virginia, on July 4, 1856, and is reproduced in the Southern Literary Messenger for 1856 (Vol. XXIII, No. 1, p. 1 f.)

-35-

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