George Washington's birthday (Feb. 22) has long been blended with Lincoln's into an official celebration called President's Day. Perhaps that blurring convenience has contributed to the growing ignorance about a man once called "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
A new poll of 800 Americans conducted for Washington College reveals that fewer than half could name Washington's wife or his residence, or identify him as the leader of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. The nation's first president was ranked as only the seventh greatest president, just behind the current one.
Now, contrast that state of popular knowledge of the nation's first hero with an exhibition finishing up at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art called "George Washington: Man, Myth, Monument." The exhibit shows dozens of art pieces from the nation's first century depicting Washington in patriotic and sentimental scenes. One 1860 lithograph has him being carried to the heavens, his light shining down on "the Orphan States, dissolving in sorrow at his Tomb." An early daguerreotype reveals a girl peering in deep thought at a famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington.
Adulation of the man did go a bit overboard for decades after his death. He himself didn't want to be seen as a near-monarch who would cling to power. In recent decades, many schoolteachers have deemphasized achievements of "dead white men," especially those who owned slaves.
Lately, however, realistic biographies of the Founding Fathers have proven popular, debunking earlier mythmaking and showing these men as possessing all-too-human qualities.
Each generation rediscovers Washington in its own way. Let's hope this one at least learns more about him.