Did you know that today’s federal holiday is legally known as “Washington’s Birthday”? Various local and state governments, as well as businesses and schools, have commonly referred to the day as “Presidents Day” to honor all of the presidents, including Abraham Lincoln whose birthday was February 12th. However, the observance originated to celebrate George Washington’s life and contributions to the founding of the United States of America.
George Washington was born in 1732 in Pope’s Creek, Virginia. He was the General of the Continental Army, first signer of the United States Constitution, and elected unanimously as the first President of the United States. In 1799, Washington died at the age of 67 at Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia.
Almost immediately after his death, certain images of George Washington took hold in the popular imagination. Various commemorative objects were created to celebrate the “Father of the Country” and Washington’s military and personal accomplishments. But other depictions showed Washington as a heroic figure clothed like an ancient god, where he was associated with the formative democratic ideals of classical antiquity.
Compare Washington’s clothing in the white glass bust with that in the reverse-painted portrait. On the bust he is portrayed in neoclassical drapery, rather than in clothing of his own time period. George Washington never wore garments like this in his lifetime, but the association conveys his status as comparable to the ancient Greek philosophers and champions of democracy.
Both the pressed bust and the hatchet below were made as souvenirs for international exhibitions in the United States.
The bust dates to 1876, the year of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The choice of white glass purposely simulated marble, making it an affordable alternative to a full-sized bust of Washington executed in costly stone. Glassmakers capitalized on opportunities to sell commemorative items to celebrate anniversaries of important moments in Washington’s life and the founding of the nation.
One of the enduring legends associated with George Washington involves his youthful possession of a hatchet and the subsequent chopping down of his father’s prized cherry tree. Demonstrating his sense of personal responsibility, he confessed to his father, proclaiming, “I cannot tell a lie.” This tale originated in The Life of Washington, a biography written in 1800 by Mason Locke Weems, who was commonly known as Parson Weems.
Depicted by American artist Grant Wood, this painting illustrates Weems framing the story of the hatchet and the cherry tree [Collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1970.43]. Most of the popular knowledge surrounding George Washington is rooted in Weems’ account and persists into the 21st century.
George Washington’s legacy endures today. His image is present in our everyday lives-most notably on the $1 bill, but also in unexpected artistic endeavors such as the patriotic marble made by Ro Purser. The title, The Man Who Would Not Be King, references another Washington legend. As General of the Continental Army, Washington was greatly admired by his troops. They encouraged him to become king of the newly independent nation, but he dismissed the idea of monarchy. He believed in a republican government, in which the consensus of the people held more power than a single elected official. The holiday is a reminder of the characteristics Americans cherish in their Presidents, modeled by the first, George Washington.
To learn more about George Washington, see www.mountvernon.org