The most bizarre thing about George Washington is that he is one of the few people in history whose life lives up to the legend it spawned. Even Mother Theresa and Gandhi have their detractors. But no matter how much dirt one tries to dig up on George Washington—that he grew marijuana, that he made a fortune selling whiskey, that he lost more battles than he won, that he owned more than 100 slaves, that he married for money, that he had bad teeth, that he was a lousy singer—the so-called “father of our country” remains an honorable, decent, and occasionally brilliant man—a historical figure supremely worthy of our admiration and respect.
The new traveling exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, Discover the Real George Washington—which opens Feb. 22, Washington’s Birthday, and is organized by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association—will only enhance and expand GW’s formidable legacy. In fact, the exhibit seems calculated to cement GW’s reputation as the ultimate American—a man who led armies, survived battles, was successful in business, had an uncanny entrepreneurial spirit, believed in the grace and glory of our lord Jesus Christ, and was uncompromisingly honest in word and deed.
True, the exhibit tells a much fuller story of Washington’s life than one typically learns in elementary school. But make no mistake, the ultimate purpose of this exhibit is to glorify and lionize the man in ways he has never been glorified before. Toward that end, science has been used to bring us closer to the vibrant young man GW was in the decades before he reluctantly became president. Included are three life-size wax figures of Washington—one as a young man, one in his military heyday, and one as president—that were created by a team of historians and artisans who used portraits of Washington, measurements of his clothes, and lots of sophisticated 3D modeling software to approximate what George Washington looked like when he was a young man (left). And surprise!—he’s as dashingly handsome as you’d expect a true American hero to be. 6’2″, blue eyes, trim physique, regal nose, strong chin, broad shoulders—it’s all there: a pure genetic template for the iconic American male. The same goes for his horse, Blueskin, which is also digitally recreated in all his three-dimensional glory.
The exhibit includes 11 dioramas, six short films produced by the History Channel, and several “interactive” features, one of which lets you place your hand on the bible and take the President’s oath of office. (It’s not as easy as you think.) The scale model of Mt. Vernon and the toy-soldier version of the battle of Ft. Necessity in the French/Indian War are both very cool, especially if you like exquisitely detailed miniature landscapes and battle re-enactments. Only a few of the artifacts were installed when I went through, but you’ll get to see the original Gilbert Stuart painting from which GW’s dour image on the one-dollar bill is taken, as well as jewelry, china, silver, and glassware from the Washington household in Mt. Vernon. The History channel movies are interesting as well, especially the one featuring scholars debating Washington’s conduct with regard to slaves.
If you take the time to read the plaques and watch the movies, you will certainly come away with a greater appreciation for the breadth and magnitude of Washington’s accomplishments. Still, the language used in the exhibit is so suffused with the ecstasy of idol worship that it’s hard not to feel manipulated at times. In the exhibit’s words, Washington was a “dauntless warrior,” an entrepreneurial “mastermind,” a man of firm and “tolerant” beliefs who was “troubled” by his ownership of so many slaves. His courage in war set the template for future American military might. He was an ingenious visionary who rotated crops, bred genetically enhanced donkeys, revolutionized grist-milling, and—because he believed his success in battle and business was a sign of divine providence—marched relentlessly forward in his life, guided by his strong convictions and even stronger faith. Heck, even when Washington was sinning—by running the most prosperous whiskey still in the country—he did it better than anyone else.
Doubtless most of these facts are essentially true, if not entirely so. But the gushing idol-worship of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association gets a bit out of hand when it comes to George Washington’s celebrated dentures. The genuine article(s) is there, in a little case, and if you learn nothing else you will learn that Washington’s dentures were not made of wood, but of “the finest” lead, ivory, and cow’s teeth. Surrounding the false teeth is an entire rotunda chronicling the history of GW’s teeth and how he slowly, painfully lost them. Still, we are assured in one panel that even at the early age of 23, during the French and Indian War, GW “made personal dental care a priority.” (Losing his teeth was not his fault, you see—it was just another obstacle the great man had to overcome.)
The exhibit doesn’t get into many persnickety details, such as the fact that Washington warned against the creation of political parties and the danger of well-funded special interests hijacking legislation for their own personal gain. Indeed, I doubt George Washington would recognize as “democracy” the military-entertainment-financial vortex that has consumed his country, for it manifests pretty much all of the evils he railed against in his lifetime. It’s particularly amusing to think what the real GW would say to certain revisers of American history about what sort of country he “intended” to build versus the one we have.
And in case you’re wondering, no, GW did not grow marijuana to smoke it; he grew it to make rope and clothes, and to improve his soil. But that’s George Washington for you—insufferably good through and through.