A FRIEND and I talked not long ago about one of the great failures of late 18th-century American portraiture. ``For some reason,'' I remarked, ``none of those painters quite captured the special quality of George Washington.'' ``He certainly had something,'' she agreed. ``He got soldiers to fight who were half naked, half freezing, and half starved, and who hadn't been paid. He even got them to reenlist.''
Despite a thousand portraits, they never seem to disclose the depth and complexity of who Washington was.
Charles Willson Peale served with Washington during the New Jersey campaigns of 1777 and at Valley Forge and did seven portraits from life. These Peale portraits maintain a consistency of aspect, but they do not strikingly resemble the George Washington limned by John Trumbull.
Trumbull served briefly as Washington's aide-de-camp outside Boston in 1775, doing portraits from memory and history paintings in which Washington figured. He also executed a full-length portrait when Washington sat for him in 1790.
And, curiously, neither the Peales nor the Trumbulls look much like the Gilbert Stuart Washington portraits.
Washington stood 6 feet 3 and weighed more than 200 pounds. He had enormous hands. He also had ambition - for status, for reputation, for the opportunity to be useful - and kept his ambition in harmony with his times.
In addition, he had charisma.
The Chevalier de Chastellux, who visited Washington at his winter quarters in November 1780, noted that ``the strongest characteristic of this respectable man is the perfect harmony which reigns between the physical and moral qualities....''
In his ``Memoirs,'' however, another contemporary Frenchman, General Rochambeau, who devised the Yorktown campaign, depicted Washington as an indiscreet military primitive.
Washington was charming to women in the manner of his time and background, and he loved to dance. Like many another woman, Abigail Adams felt his ``presence.'' After meeting the Continental Army's commander in chief, she wrote husband John, the period's consummate politician, quoting what the Queen of Sheba said in meeting Solomon, ``I thought the half was not told me.''
By contrast Gilbert Stuart felt that ``All his features were indicative of the strongest passions. Yet, like Socrates, his judgment and self-command made him appear of a different cast in the eyes of the world.... Had he been born in the forests ... he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.''
But the admiring Chastellux disapproved of Washington's eating habits; he thought the general ate too much and spent too much time at table. After describing a midafternoon meal consisting of ``eight or ten large dishes of meat and poultry, with vegetables of several sorts, followed by a second course of pastry,'' he noted that ``Washington usually continues eating for two hours, toasting and conversing all the time.''
Besides being a notable eater, Washington was also an excellent horseman. He galloped everywhere. Though he worked as a surveyor as a teen-ager, he inherited Mount Vernon at the age of 20 upon the death of his older half brother Lawrence, his guardian after the death of their father when George was only 11.
Washington fought - without distinction - in the French and Indian War, serving with men he later opposed. Ambitious for military rank and honor, he returned to Mount Vernon when these were denied him. He married advantageously when not quite 27. It does not seem to have been a love match (Martha was a widow with two surviving children of the four she had borne), but Washington was unquestionably happy in his marriage. Throughout the war years he longed for - and grumbled about not getting enough - news from Mount Vernon. His wife joined him each year when he moved into winter quarters.
As practically everyone knows, he had trouble with his teeth. He also had trouble with his mother. Despite his having provided for her care, she complained regularly of neglect. While he was at war, she sought to have the Virginia House of Delegates come to her financial aid.
A letter written when the mother and son failed to meet gives a flavor of her person. (The spelling and punctuation are hers.) ``My dear Georg,'' she wrote, ``I was truly unesy by Not being at hom when you went thru fredirceksburg it was a onlucky thing for me now I am afraid I Never Shall have that pleasure agin I am soe very unwell this trip over the Mountins has almost kill'd me....''
Although legend tells us that he could not tell a lie, Washington, in fact, became a master of lies. And of exaggerations. He regularly swelled the number of his troops (recruitment becomes difficult if you publicize the fewness of those rallying to your cause) and the number of casualties they inflicted. Acting as his own spymaster and intelligence chief, he systematically sent misinformation into British camps.
When completely perplexed or angry, Washington could fall into a kind of blue funk. He did this on the September day in 1775 when British troops drove up Bloomingdale Road on Manhattan Island, threatening Continental positions. Trying to rally retreating troops - he was on a hill where the New York Public Library now stands - Washington found that they paid no attention to him. They flew past him on feet that could not stop running. He chased them, whipped them, shouted for them to face the enemy. They ran on. Finally Washington was alone. He stared blankly at some 50 British troops running toward him. He did not move. Finally aides rode up, grabbed the bridle of Washington's horse, and led him away.
Washington had daring, especially in desperate situations.
His most famous military exploit - the crossing of the icy Delaware River on Christmas night of 1776 and the successful raid hours later against the Hessian encampments at Trenton - resulted partly from the fact that most of his troops' enlistments expired Dec. 31. He needed an exploit to keep the Army from fading away.
Even after overcoming the Hessian encampments at Trenton, Washington had immediately to beg his troops not to abandon the Army. He paraded them and asked them to extend their enlistments. No one volunteered. So he tried again.
James Thomas Flexner quotes him as imploring: ``My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do.... You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay ... you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you can probably never do under any other circumstances.'' Finally a few men stepped forward, then more - until nearly all the regiment had done so. Washington hurried off to tell other regiments that the one he had just left had reenlisted to a man.
Then he led the reenlisted men against the Hessians at Princeton. He took them by surprise and overcame them as well.
That icy crossing and the battles that followed changed world history. Washington's ragtag Army was not supposed to defeat some of the era's most formidable and best trained troops - even in minor battles. But it did. All Europe took note. Something in the affairs of men had changed. Using personal initiative and frontier savvy, Washington's ill-trained men were fighting for something the mercenary Hessians would never understand.
Long years were to pass before victory came. The climactic Yorktown campaign took place against Washington's wishes, forced upon him by his French allies. Washington wanted to attack the British at New York; he did not want to march his troops from the Hudson Valley all the way to Virginia. His French allies insisted.
It was not until Washington himself reached the head of Chesapeake Bay that he learned that the French fleet was inside the bay and saw the tangible possibilities of trapping Cornwallis's Army. Barbara Tuchman renders the scene this way:
``As Rochambeau's boat neared the dock at Chester, he and his staff saw the astonishing sight of a tall man acting as if he had taken leave of senses. He was jumping up and down and waving his arms in sweeping circles, with a hat in one hand and a white handkerchief in the other. On nearing the shore they could see that the eccentric figure was undoubtedly General Washington, ordinarily so grave and self-contained. Rochambeau jumped from the barge to be embraced as the wonderful news was conveyed. No one had ever seen the General so unrestrained and joyful and almost childlike in his happiness.''
Although the trap had to be sprung quickly, Washington took a holiday. Galloping most of the way, he rode two days to reach Mount Vernon, which he had not seen in 6 years. Though he loved this home, he was to spend most of his remaining years away from it. When he finally retired there in 1797, he embodied not only the daring of a dream about a new way of life, but also its realization.