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How George Washington, So Help Him God, Acquired His Many Myths

March 25, 2011

Michiko Kukutami in NYT:

Like other iconic figures in history, whether Shakespeare or Leonardo, Napoleon or Lincoln, George Washington has been mythologized, psychoanalyzed and reimagined by successive generations, his reputation and image filtered through the prism of various eras’ and interest groups’ wildly disparate cultural and political ideals.

In the space of his own lifetime, Washington saw himself transformed from a gung-ho, fox-hunting Virginia squire into the sanctified symbol of the new American nation, and in the centuries since, he’s been used to signify revolutionary ardor, capitalistic greed, religious piety and old-school democratic ideals. He’s been venerated as a marble man of impossible virtue and perfection and debunked as a cold, hard opportunist who just happened to lead a ragtag army to an unlikely victory over what was then the greatest military power in the world.

George Washington has been described as athletic and awkward, bawdy and priggish, pragmatic and unbending, and depicted both as a puritanical zealot with no tolerance for swearing, drinking, gambling or dancing and as a Fabio-like ladies’ man who was a great card player, a distiller of whiskey and a “champion curser” who could dance for hours without stopping. He’s had words he never uttered placed in his mouth, and he’s been invoked by a bevy of politicians on the right and left, not to mention a host of advertisers, as a seal of approval. [More]

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