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On George Washington, cherry trees and paparazzi

February 20, 2012

Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, 1795. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Today in the U.S., we mark the federal holiday set aside to honor George Washington, the first president and chief general of the Continental Army. So on this occasion, I’d like to present two items relating to the man that I found interesting. The first is a nice blog I came across that’s worth your time, and the second is a rather neat document from Washington himself that illustrates another case of “what we think is new is actually old.”

But first, a bit of clarity in language. If you’ve been reading your newspaper or watching TV, you’d be forgiven for thinking that today’s is “Presidents Day,” and it exists primarily to offer deals on cars and living room suites. Not so. It’s called Washington’s Birthday, and its origins date back to 1879. Originally celebrated on the actual day, Feb. 22, it was moved to the third Monday of February in 1971 by congressional act. The term Presidents Day came about   in the 1980s due to advertiser repetition. A sort of peace seems to have been made in the public mind, with people assuming it’s an official way to honor the birth of both Washington and Lincoln (Feb. 12).

So enough on the name of the day, on to the topic at hand.

First, about that old tale concerning George Washington and the cherry tree. At a fun blog called “The History Chef!”, Suzy Evans unpacks the oft-told story. She presents its origins, retells it in full from the original, and notes that it probably fails as actual history, but succeeds admirably in building up Washington as a mythical figure. It’s still a great story, and Dr. Evans’ blog, on food and the Founders, is a delight.

At the Pieces of History blog of the National Archives, you’ll find this post containing a letter from Washington to Virginia Gov. Henry Lee complaining about the incessant attentions of portrait painters, and a video in which Archives curator Alice Kamps suggests that 18th century portraitists were much like the paparazzi who track today’s celebrities. Interesting suggestion, there. What, exactly, does Washington say about them?

You can view the letter at this link, which takes you to a very high-quality scan of the 1792 original, which can be zoomed, scrolled, and downloaded as a pdf (at last try, this link wasn’t working).

Washington notes in his letter that he is “heartily tired of these kinds of people” (emphasis mine), that he has resolved not to sit for them, and has kept his vow “except in instances where it has been requested by the public bodies or for a particular purpose.” He found particularly irritating that portraits he sat for would sometimes be “engraved (and that badly), and hawked about for sale.”

So we have George Washington complaining about unscrupulous painters taking up his time, and “hawking” his likeness without his permission. Even in 1792, we see an interest among politicians in controlling their message, and commerce intruding into the lives of the celebrities of the day. Another great example of, as the saying goes, “what’s past is prologue.”

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