By Jack D. Warren, Jr.
November 4, 2018
George Washington was forty years old in the spring of 1772, when a young artist named Charles Willson Peale called at Mount Vernon to paint his portrait. Washington had never sat for a portrait, but Mrs. Washington insisted. “Inclination having yielded to opportunity,” Washington wrote to a friend, “I am now, contrary to all expectation, under the hands of Mr. Peale; but in so grave—so sullen a mood—and now and then under the influence of Morpheus, when some critical strokes are making, that I fancy the skill of this Gentleman’s Pencil, will be hard put to it, describing to the World the manner of man I am.”
Washington posed for Peale in the uniform of a colonel of the Virginia militia. He had risen to that rank in the French and Indian War, but had resigned in 1759, abandoning his youthful ambition to secure a commission in the king’s army. He had put his uniform away. He took it out in 1772 to make a statement. Almost 250 years later, that statement commands our attention.
For most of the last hundred years, Peale’s first portrait of George Washington was displayed in a place of honor in the chapel of Washington & Lee University, to which George Washington Custis Lee—Martha Washington’s great-great grandson—gave it in the late nineteenth century. The painting has been seen and admired by generations of students and visitors, until a few days ago, when the university announced its intention to replace it with a portrait of an older, more familiar Washington in plain black clothes—a pedestrian portrait, as familiar as the one on a dollar bill, and as easily ignored.
The university has been curiously reticent about this change, reporting blandly that “portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Washington in civilian clothing will replace the portraits of Lee and Washington in military uniforms that currently hang in Lee Chapel.” Many graduates, who look fondly on the university’s traditions and regard change with profound distrust, are deeply disturbed by the move. They should be, because it signals a rejection—not just of the Confederate cause so inextricably connected to the memory of Lee—but of George Washington and all that he represents, much of which is symbolized by the extraordinary portrait the university has decided to remove from its place of honor.
The decision to remove the portrait of Robert E. Lee in his Confederate uniform from the chapel is one of many consequences of a cultural upheaval at Washington & Lee over the university’s association with the memory of Lee and the Confederate cause. In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and the ensuing demands to remove Confederate memorials from public spaces, the president of Washington & Lee, William Dudley, convened a twelve-member “Commission on Institutional History and Community” to consider the ways the university treats its own past, or in the language of President Dudley’s charge, “the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it.”
Curiously, only one member of this commission on history is a historian. It’s as if President Dudley appointed a twelve-member commission on student health with only one physician. This choice signals the real purpose of the commission, which has much less to do with institutional history than with cultural politics—with expressing modern impressions, attitudes and aspirations, not reaching for a deeper understanding of the university’s remarkable history or the complex ways that history is tied to that of Virginia and of the United States.
The university might claim its place in this remarkable history, but it seems intent on isolating itself from the nation’s past. Many observers assume the commission was convened to begin the process that will lead to the university changing its name. President Dudley and the commission have certainly begun laying the foundation for that change by redefining George Washington and Robert E. Lee as men unworthy of the honor the university bestowed on them—by casting them as representatives of a society repugnant to modern sensibilities, worthy of note only because they assisted the school at times of crisis.
The university’s present leaders regard much in Washington & Lee’s history as an impediment to progress. They regard the university’s past—or at least much of it—as a burden and even a source of shame, to be exorcised by confessional acknowledgment of the university’s victims and celebration of the pioneers who have helped it overcome the racism and sexism of its first centuries. Rejecting the legacy of the university’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century leaders, or confining respect for them within carefully defined, politically palatable bounds, has become a mark of progressive, enlightened thinking. With regard to Lee, this has meant focusing on his role as a progressive educator rather than the noble hero of the Lost Cause. Indeed, the university has been shifting its interpretation of Lee in that direction for a generation. The recommendations of the commission on this point are not new.
What the university’s present leaders fail to see is how intimately Washington & Lee’s past is rooted in the ideals and aspirations of the American Revolution—a past embodied by the university’s association with George Washington and symbolized by the youthful portrait of Washington the university owns. In this moment of institutional introspection, the university has a chance to embrace its connection to the greatest movement in favor of freedom in modern history—if they would only recognize it.
Washington & Lee, which began as Augusta Academy in 1749, is one of the nation’s oldest colleges and the first institution of higher learning west of the Blue Ridge. Its leaders renamed it Liberty Hall Academy in 1776, reflecting their attachment to the cause of the American Revolution, which was intimately tied up with the fate of the trans-Appalachian West. George Washington, along with many others, looked to the region beyond the mountains as a source of future prosperity for himself and for the people of British America—a seemingly boundless region of opportunity.
In the years before the Revolution, British officials worked to slow the westward movement of their colonists, anxious to keep them close to the coast where they could be more effectively governed and taxed, and away from the powerful Indian tribes of the West, with which Britain wanted to avoid costly military confrontations. Meanwhile investors in Britain sought to establish claims to the most valuable land beyond the mountains and preclude its acquisition by colonists like Washington, who had bought up land warrants given to Virginia soldiers who served in the French and Indian War.
When Washington posed for Charles Willson Peale in his old French and Indian War uniform, he was making a visual allusion to his service in wresting the West from France and opening it to settlement—service in which he had risked, and nearly lost, his life. Washington was approaching middle age in 1772, but the face that looks out from Peale’s portrait exudes the youthful energy of a man who had spent most of his life outdoors. The uniform is the one Washington wore in 1754-1755, when he was twenty-three. In his pocket is a folded paper labelled “Order of March” and slung over his shoulder is a fusil, a short musket carried by officers in the field, which is consistent with the setting. Rough mountains and a tumbling stream in the background recall the scene of Washington’s earliest military service on the western frontier of Britain’s American colonies.
As much as any American of his generation, Washington believed that the West was the source of America’s future wealth and greatness. In the years before the Revolution he had staked much of his future on this conviction. He had begun to imagine that vast agricultural heartland of the continent might be tied to the coast by improving the rocky rivers flowing east from the mountains and bypassing their falls with canals—an idea he would never abandon. He looked to the West as a source of his own wealth and of the future prosperity of Americans, and in 1772, when Peale portrayed him in his soldier’s uniform, he was beginning to realize that the interests of the colonies and of Britain—or at least of the government ministers and their cronies—were diverging.
Washington could not, of course, have imagined what was coming. He had turned his back on the life of a soldier in 1759, when he married Martha Custis and retired—that was the word he used—intent on spending the rest of his life securing his fortune and turning Mount Vernon into a model estate. He held a seat in the colony’s legislature, the House of Burgesses. He said little, but he watched carefully, and what he saw disturbed him. As early as 1769 he had written that “no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment to use arms” in defense of “American freedom.”
After 1772, events moved quickly. In 1774 Washington and his neighbors in Fairfax County, “taking into our serious consideration the present alarming Situation of all the British Colonies upon this Continent,” formed an independent militia company to prevent “the Destruction of our Civil-rights, & Liberty.” Late that year Washington had an indentured servant named Andrew Judge make him a new uniform. This one was blue, with buff facings and breeches to replace the red facings and breeches of his old uniform.
Just thirty-six months after he posed for Peale, Washington packed this uniform and took it with him to Philadelphia to attend the Second Continental Congress, which had gathered in the wake of the violence at Lexington and Concord and had to consider how the colonies should respond. Some in the hall believed that a general war might be avoided, or that the violent resistance to Britain in Massachusetts might be contained—or that it was New England’s fight, an aberration and not the beginning of a war at all.
Washington spoke little, but he said as much as any of the delegates by appearing in the hall in his military uniform every day, as if to remind them all that a war had begun—a war in which the fate of every colony would be determined. On June 15, 1775, Congress named him commander-in-chief of the newly created Continental Army.
He was forty-three, but still vigorous—an athlete, a fine horseman—and extraordinarily brave. Young men vied to ride beside him. But his greatest gift was an unyielding determination to fulfill his duty and secure American independence. He was relentless. For more than eight years he led an army of farmers and tradesmen and half-trained boys in a struggle with one of the world’s great military powers. They were beaten in battle far more often than they won, but struggled on. He shared their privations, sleeping in tents as winter descended, refusing comforts and luxuries, and spending sleepless nights and anxious days to keep his men supplied with clothes, blankets, food and arms. During eight years of war he visited his home only once, for a night, as he passed by on his way to Yorktown.
When it was over, he was fifty-one. He was no longer the bright-eyed, smiling young man Peale had painted in 1772. His eyesight had begun to fail and he confessed to his officers that he had begun to grow old and blind in the service of his country. If that sounds sentimental to us, it did not to the men who heard him say it. They knew what he had been through, and they honored him for the rest of their lives.
The Virginia legislature honored him as well, and commissioned the great French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, to create a statue of Washington from life. That masterpiece—widely recognized as the greatest portrait sculpture of the eighteenth century—stands in a place of honor in the Virginia State Capitol. It portrays Washington in uniform, returning home at the end of the Revolutionary War, a weary soldier putting away his sword and returning to his plow, which stands at his feet, a modern embodiment of the self-effacing classical hero Cincinnatus, who refused riches and power after leading the armies of the Roman republic to victory.
The Virginia legislature did not rest with that. It made Washington a gift of one hundred shares of stock in the James River Company, a venture to clear the river of obstructions and open navigation with the West, as Washington had foreseen. Washington found the gift an embarrassment. He had pledged to accept nothing for his wartime services, but he was reluctant to refuse the honor the legislature had done him. He puzzled over how to deal with the matter, and finally decided to give the stock—worth millions of dollars in today’s money—to struggling Liberty Hall Academy, an institution of higher learning beyond the mountains, in the region in which so much of Washington’s ambitions for the nation’s future rested. It was one of the largest gifts yet made to any American school, and in gratitude the trustees renamed the academy in Washington’s honor. A few years later, the veteran officers of Washington’s army, who had organized themselves as the Virginia Society of the Cincinnati, contributed their entire treasury to the school in honor of their chief.
Many of Washington’s contemporaries did not share his faith in the future of the land beyond the mountains or the people he hoped would settle there. They feared that the people who lived beyond the mountains would lose touch with the civilizing influence of the seaboard cities, and would be coarse and unrefined. And like the British before them, they worried that the people beyond the mountains would be ungovernable and hard to tax. As people poured through the mountain passes in the years after the Revolution, their anxieties deepened. Washington’s did not. He was convinced that the future greatness of America lay in the rising empire beyond the mountains. His gift to struggling Liberty Hall Academy was an investment in that vision.
Peale’s great portrait of the ambitious young Washington facing west does not have to be displayed in Lee Chapel. It has not always been displayed there, and for several decades it shared the wall of honor in the chapel with many other portraits of men associated with the university. This remained the situation as recently as the 1960s, but in recent decades the portrait (or a skillfully painted copy that spares the original from less-than-ideal environmental conditions in the chapel) has had a large space to itself on one side of the room, with a portrait of Robert E. Lee in Confederate gray on the other.
The question is really whether the university intends to display the portrait in any place of honor—in a symbolic space rather than a museum setting. The fate of the portrait is a sign of whether the university intends to honor Washington, or has concluded that he is no longer worthy of memorialization because, among other reasons, he held men and women in the perpetual bondage of slavery. This has become a litmus test for those who imagine themselves as progressives.
The signs are not favorable to Washington. The university’s leaders have lumped their namesakes together, finding them similarly complicit in slavery. They seem to make no distinction between the general who commanded the armies that secured our independence and made our union possible, and the general who commanded armies intent on dismembering that union. A university spokesman has explained that leaving a portrait of Washington in uniform while removing the one of Lee in uniform, might seem “demeaning” to Lee. Perhaps it would, but isn’t demeaning Lee’s military service the point of much of what the university is doing? And by removing what it dryly calls “a portrait of George Washington in military uniform” wouldn’t the university demean Washington?
In explaining his administration’s recent decisions, President Dudley has offered only one brief allusion to George Washington: “Intellectually honest consideration of our namesakes cannot separate the generous benefactor from the slaveholder, or the forward-thinking college president from the Civil War commander.” It would be good for President Dudley to expand on this comment if he will, because it sounds as if he thinks that Washington’s generosity to Washington & Lee was the only notable or virtuous act of Washington’s life and the only reason the university has to honor him, or the young men and women who assemble in the chapel have to emulate him.
It isn’t. The “intellectually honest consideration” of Washington that President Dudley calls for begins with the indisputable facts of Washington’s life—that he risked his life and fortune to command the Continental Army in a long and desperate war to achieve American independence, refusing all compensation for his services, and resigning his commission and returning home as soon as independence was secured—something no victorious revolutionary leader had ever done, and which made Washington a hero across the Atlantic world. Washington emerged from retirement to lend his prestige to the convention that drafted the Federal Constitution, and then with the reluctance of a man worn down from public cares, accepted his election as the first president of the new republic he had done so much to create. For eight years he led the new government with prudence and skill, establishing precedents that have shaped our government for more than two centuries. He refused to serve for a third term and turned the presidency over to his successor, becoming the first head of state to preside over a peaceful transfer of authority in modern history.
The university should take pride in its personal connection to such a man. Through a life dedicated to public service, no American did more than George Washington to establish our independence, our national identity and our republic, nor to commit that republic to ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship. Those ideals were only partly realized in Washington’s generation. They remain imperfectly realized in our own.
The challenge of our time is to fulfill the promise of Washington’s revolution, recognizing that our ideas of liberty, equality and justice came down to us from a deeply imperfect past. They emerged in a time of despotism, pervasive inequality and deep injustice. Men and women struggled in darkness to create a new order of things, in which ordinary people would be citizens rather than subjects, and governments exist to advance the interests of ordinary people. We owe the freedoms we enjoy to the men and women who risked their lives, and gave their lives, in that cause. They laid the foundations for centuries of progress.
The history of Washington & Lee is intimately connected to the revolutionary generation and to the idealism of that moment, when Americans dedicated themselves to a great cause, and to the promise of a continental republic committed to the interests of ordinary people. George Washington’s commitment to the future of the university is a reflection of that spirit, and can be a source of pride and of inspiration for centuries to come.
Jack D. Warren, Jr., is the executive director of The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati.