Most Americans know that George Washington was the first president of the United States and that he's called the "Father of His Country." But beyond that, many Americans know little about George Washington or even think much about him on the anniversary of his birth, February 22. However, there are some at Washington's home, Mt. Vernon, Virginia, who would like to see a new and improved image of America's first president.
On a cold, blustery winter day, Carol Pearson leads a small group of tourists on the grounds of Mt. Vernon, located just south of Washington, D.C. Virtually everyone who comes to George Washington's final home departs knowing more about him.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a "Presidents Day" to honor all presidents, replacing separate birthday holidays for Abraham Lincoln and Washington. The idea of just a "Presidents Day" really bothers Jim Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon.
"I think it's a very wrong thing to do," he said. "When it was George Washington's birthday, there was a focus to it. The focus was that Washington was held up as a tremendous example of good character, sound morals and tremendous leadership. Now, President's Day is a shopping holiday."
Mr. Rees said Washington's "demotion" among national holidays may reflect his loss of esteem among the American public. "About a year ago, they did a survey among scholars, and in that survey, George Washington came in at number one. They still think he's the greatest and most important president," said Mr. Rees. "But when they surveyed the general public, Washington didn't even make the top five. I think what that says is that Washington's character and leadership still stands above those of all the rest. But somehow he's not 'connecting' with the American people."
That lack of "connection" between George Washington's accomplishments and the American public is also reflected among the one million visitors who come to Mt. Vernon each year, as Jim Rees explained. "Ten years ago, we started noticing that [the awareness of] people coming through our gates were different than they were 30 years ago. They just didn't seem to know much about the real George Washington," said Mr. Rees. "What we discovered was that most of the problems start in the classroom. When I was in the fourth grade [i.e., 40 years ago], my textbook then had 10 times more coverage of Washington than in the book used in the exact same school today. It wasn't too long ago that George Washington's portrait hung in every classroom."
If George Washington's portrait is missing from classrooms, it's still on the American one dollar bill. But Mr. Rees said that famous image is an unflattering one. "That's a great piece of art, but it's probably not the most favorable impression of Washington," said Mr. Rees. "He looks old. He looks stiff. He looks very formal. He doesn't look very happy. If you think of him in that kind of stiff, staid kind of way, you're missing the real Washington. I promise you that, of all the Founding Fathers, he was the most robust, most athletic, most adventurous of them all."
Mt. Vernon's director noted that George Washington was kind of a "hunk" in his day. "[Thomas] Jefferson called him the best horseback rider in the colonies. Women, when he was president, would wait in line because he was also such a terrific dancer. You'd feel fortunate doing a spin around the dance floor with him," said Mr. Rees. "Washington had a terrific physical presence; he was almost 6'3" [1.9 meters]. He designed many of his own uniforms. I promise you that Washington, on his beautiful white horse Nelson, in that uniform, was a sight to behold."
Jim Rees said building Washington's image is an especially challenging effort among today's youth, raised in the world of MTV and short attention spans. "Many of Washington's best qualities may not be attractive to the computer wizards we have in our society today," he said. "George Washington was careful, considerate, and modest. He was in it for the 'long haul,' if you will, and wasn't trying to make headlines on a daily basis. One of his most famous quotes is that he'd basically do anything for his country; he would always answer the call of his country. That's dependability. I don't know if being dependable is on most young people's lists [of admirable qualities] today."
Ironically, Mr. Rees noted that some of the biggest fans of George Washington are visitors from abroad. "I'm impressed at how many foreign leaders come to Mount Vernon and say to me that they know who George Washington was," he said. "In some cases, they say. 'I'm trying to be the George Washington of my country.' I think he's really looked up to by leaders around the world."
In recent years, officials at Mt. Vernon emphasized some of George Washington's lesser-known skills, especially as farmer. "Washington was perhaps the most progressive and creative farmer in America. He designed a sensational 16-sided treading barn, which revolutionized the processing of wheat. He didn't like the plows that existed, so he invented his own," said Mr. Rees. "He was the one who introduced the mule to America. He developed a wonderful, seven-year crop rotation system that didn't produce a saleable product for three out of the seven years because he wanted to plow back the soil and invigorate it. Washington owned the most sophisticated grist mill in America, and next door to that he built a terrific distillery. Right now we're doing archeology, and it may have been the biggest distillery in America."
Jim Rees hopes that Mt. Vernon will continue to play a major role in developing a "new and improved" image of George Washington. Officials there are planning to build a new interpretive center showing the president in a modern, attention-grabbing style. If fund-raising goes as planned, the new center is scheduled to be completed in 2006.