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Washington Slept Here

A look at the first president's "best bed" leads to a recollection of the real man and his exemplary life

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Throughout the year, pictures, documents and objects associated with Washington have been on display, many centering around Mount Vernon, lately refurbished to look more like the working farm and private home it was rather than the quasi museum it later became. But for people who can't make it to the banks of the Potomac, a splendid traveling exhibition entitled "Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed" is touring the country. A new Internet site (www.gwashington1999.org) is open, and scholars have compiled an official list of the ten best books about him.

The effort is laudable and will doubtless do his image some good. Gilbert Stuart, who took a dislike to Washington, gave us the grim portrait that still chills us from the dollar bill. The 19th century made him into a monument endowed with almost superhuman virtues and encrusted in formality. "Did anyone ever see Washington naked!" Nathaniel Hawthorne once said. "I imagine [he] was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered." In our own debunking age, a considerable part of the effort to humanize Washington emphasizes the flesh and blood farmer, acquirer of real estate and owner of slaves. We learn that he loved children but never had any of his own. That he practiced soil chemistry and crop rotation, giving up tobacco in favor of wheat. He also bred mules, was one of the finest horsemen of the age, liked to dance and play cards and — though he ate and drank sparingly — distilled and sold whiskey out of Mount Vernon. Much has been, and will be, made about the fact that he fell half in love with his next-door neighbor's young wife, Sally Fairfax, then married a rich widow, a fact less important than that he was apparently faithful to Martha for 40 years. And, of course, there are those sets of false teeth, not wooden but made from hippo tusks and other materials, that pained him continually and deformed his face.

Bringing Washington to life these days is a hard row to hoe, because he really was a monument as well as a man, and to understand him, you need to understand the monument, too. The stoic Roman virtues that he practiced are almost entirely alien to our febrile times. He was a leader and a patriot, not a politician; the authority figure of all authority figures. Like the Romans he saw ambition not as a matter of individual ego but as a public duty. Infinitely scrupulous, infinitely patient, endlessly devoted to the vision of political union, a democratic republic strong enough and just enough and sensible enough to prosper, he became quite literally the father of a new country. But "father knows best" does not play well today when bumpers are plastered with "Question authority" stickers, while assorted cultural influences simply presuppose that fathers are hopeless boobs, that patriotic exhortation is mostly phony, and that the restraint, discipline and order that Washington brought to everyday life are hypocritical.

It is hard to understand what the country owed him, if you believe, as people today tend to, that everything had to happen the way it did happen. We can hardly imagine the new republic, its birth perilous, its destiny decidedly not manifest, a tiny, shaky experiment, torn with dissension, deeply in debt, a prey to internal anarchy and the external ambitions of Europe. All similar experiments had ended in mob rule or oligarchy or dictatorship.

Washington was a practical man, a tinkerer and problem solver, and an original self-help American. He spent his life studying and figuring out what was the right thing to do, then gave it his best shot. He had the latest books on how to be an expert farmer. On how to become your own architect. Books on government and philosophy. The works of Seneca. As general, he figured out how to fight the British starting with no army at all. As President, Washington managed to get the best out of men as opposed as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Above all, he managed to figure out how to bring the union safely into being.

As President, he also stayed as much as possible apart from partisan politics, something we can hardly imagine now. Early in the job, when everything he did set a precedent, he visited the Senate, listened to a good deal of wordy bickering, then left, reportedly saying, "I'm damned if I go there again." And he never did.

Nothing symbolizes the modern age's difficulty in understanding Washington's life and times more than the easy moral outrage that encourages the present to simplify the past in order to condemn it.

Especially the matter of slavery. Washington was deeply troubled by slavery. After the Revolution, he did not, with one exception, sell Mount Vernon's slaves away from their families, and he studied ways in which they might be equipped for freedom, including an arrangement by which they could work for one of his tenants and get paid for it. In his will he stipulated that his slaves should be freed upon his wife's death, and specifically left money that was still supporting them at least 30 years after his death.

In the end, what did away with slavery was the decline of state sovereignty and the growing power of the union that the Constitution made possible. That and the rise of commerce, set in motion by Washington and Hamilton and opposed by states' rights advocates like Jefferson and others, who championed agriculture, even though in the South it was largely based on slavery. Washington understood that the end of slavery would be possible only when the federal government was strong and more people made their living in trade, in manufacturing and other nonagrarian pursuits. Jefferson bitterly disagreed.

It would take a long and bloody civil war to prove that Washington had been right. Yet Jefferson's final assessment of the first President is worth remembering: "His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good and a great man."

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