By Gelene Simpson
Corsicana Daily Sun
As a child growing up in Texas, I dreaded the onset of winter. Facing the north wind was not my idea of a good experience. I would think of the stories about the Revolutionary soldiers under George Washington at Valley Forge, and that was enough to bring on a rigor. You see, Washington was my hero, and I can see in my mind’s eyes the copy of the famous portrait of him which hung on the wall in William B. Travis Elementary School in Corsicana when I was a youngster. Later, I learned that the picture was unfinished. But I thought at the time that the cloudy effect at the bottom of the picture was symbolic of his goodness and greatness as if he rested in the clouds like an angelic figure.
Of course, I had heard all the stories attributed to Parson Weems about the chopping of the cherry tree and the inability of the boy to tell a lie. But I didn’t stop there. I read on as I grew up and plowed through all the books that debunked him and other heroic figures. In spite of all that, however, I still maintain that there was something spiritually unique about our very first real president.
Some people may complain that he looks stern and rather uncompromising. But if you look at other portraits of the times, you will see it is more the style of the age than any particular personal characteristics that come out in the pictures back then. But I must say that no one is perfect, and as human beings we each have habits and attitudes which may irk our friends and may even arouse the ire of our opponents and adversaries. But then that is to be expected also. Surely our heroes are allowed these shortcomings without having to suffer a complete disparagement. In fact, most of the debunking of heroes which has taken place in recent times has served only to make the subjects of the debunking more endearing to me, And, of course, he must have had some qualities which inspired love and respect because his wife and step-children felt at ease with him. He was Martha Washington’s second husband; so she had someone with whom to compare him, and she always seemed perfectly content with his character and actions as far as we can tell.
One of the parts of Washington’s philosophy which I admire is his idea about fashion which was in his time as divisive as it often is today. Of course, his reason for dressing as he did arose from the differences between the philosophies of the Patriots and the Tories. Washington had strong views about what was appropriate dress so that no one could mistake him for something he was not. He was a Patriot and wanted everyone to know that. He is said to have cautioned his nephew on the subject: “A person who is anxious to be a leader of the fashion, or one of the first to follow it will certainly appear in the eyes of judicious men, to have nothing better than a frequent change of dress to recommend him to notice.” Of course, I hasten to add that he was talking to a young gentleman and was probably not including the female population in this discouraging description of the fashion plate. Anyway, Washington practiced what he preached. When he was dressed for his Inauguration, he chose a “simple, dark brown broadcloth suit, broadcloth being the first cloth manufactured in the United States.”
Fashion did not play a very large part in the lives of General Washington and his men at Valley Forge. His soldiers didn’t even have shoes to wear, let alone fancy boots. In “Bloody Footprints in the Show,” by Elizabeth P. Stanfield, a quote from Dr. Albigence Waldo’s diary describes the plight of the Revolutionary patriot: “His bare feet are seen through his worn-out shoes, his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings, his breeches not sufficient to cover his nakedness, his shirt hanging in strings, his hair disheveled; his face meager ...” There were actually bloody footprints in the snow. For at least one soldier, standing on his hat was the solution, and many soldiers tore strips from their tents to wrap around their legs and feet. General Washington wrote many long complaints to the Continental Congress protesting about Congressmen who had their comfortable firesides while his soldiers had only “a cold, bleak hill” and had to sleep “under frost and snow without clothes or blankets.”
No, it doesn’t worry me that Washington often looked so serious in his approach to matters at hand. I think it was because he realized that the matters at hand were those of life and death. Because he made the right decisions and was such a good commander, our nation was born and managed to thrive. I am sure he was more than proud and thankful when he donned the sash, collar and apron of the Masonic order and laid the cornerstone for the Capitol on Sept. 18, 1793.
(Facts about the laying of the cornerstone at the Capitol are from “We the People: The Story of the United States Capitol.” by the United States Capitol Historical Society in cooperation with the National Geographic Society, Washington D.C., 1991.)
Gelene Simpson is a Daily Sun columnist. Want to “Soundoff” on this column? Email: email@example.com