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George Washington and eighteenth century masculinity

We want George Washington—the President of all Presidents, the Man of all Men—to be a certain way. We want him to be an unalloyed male outdoing, singlehandedly, all the other competitors. We want him strong and rude, rough and rugged, athletic and hypersexualized, a chiseled torso, a Teddy Roosevelt, a Tarzan, and a John Wayne: “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

The notion that muscular and athletic bodies must define the perennial essence of masculinity has been debated, and increasingly so. Yes, Washington was hard, a real soldier. But we should not overlook that men in the past have lived by different standards. And that men in the future will live, hopefully, by different standards.

We are biased, at best: how many times have we heard Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s famous eulogy, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”? How many times have we interpreted this picture as a twentieth century celebration of man’s confrontational “instinct”?

And yet, eighteenth century practices of masculinity—especially white, higher classes masculinity—flirted with femininity and softness, or delicacy, in a way that Hollywoodian idols would deem inappropriate.

Let us start from the beginning. The real George Washington, in his prime, was immensely impressed by Lawrence, his elegant half-brother, a man who could have been easily mistaken for an aesthete. In many ways, George sought to emulate him. Lawrence was graceful and flaunted cosmopolitan habits. He had a soft face and round shoulders. He was slightly paunchy and did not look either muscular or particularly rugged.

In what he sought to embody, in his conscious body language, in his corporeal strategies, in the type of gracious man he eventually became, George was closer to Lawrence than it has been generally assumed: George Washington was this eighteenth century man, after all. Those who had met him, such as the Marquis de Barbe-Marbois, never failed to notice not only his “gentle urbanity,” but more importantly, his graciousness, “which seems to be the basis of his character. … He is masculine looking, without his features’ [sic] being less gentle on that account.”

George Washington had publicly avowed his goal, that he wanted to achieve “delicacy”: “I always wished [delicacy] should form a part of my character.” And this meant more than just paying lip service to politeness. Delicacy and gracefulness, for this particular man, were more than a manufactured show cut loose from inner morals. Washington’s graciousness, in fact, reinvigorated the link between inner virtue and outer manners: he was the gracious and delicate man he wanted to appear.

“Portrait of Lawrence Washington, older half-brother of George Washington” possibly painted by Gustavus Hesselius. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Stiff and distant, when exceptional circumstances dictated, he could effortlessly become approachable and maternal. Unannounced visitors at Mount Vernon marveled at the amount of time this busy man could spend with them talking and smiling—and at the fact that he could easily get quite merry over a few glasses of champagne. It was far from exceptional that guests could be lighted up to their bedroom by the General himself.

This is a savory episode: one guest, oppressed by a severe cold and excessive coughing, had retired to his room. “When some time had elapsed, the door of my room was gently opened, and on drawing my bed-curtains, to my utter astonishment, I beheld Washington himself, standing at my bedside, with a bowl of hot tea in his hand.”

Little acts of kindness, graciousness, and softness such as these show that there was much more in George Washington’s masculinity than hard power and an imposing physique. On this last score, most portraits of him give to his person burliness and size that real Washington did not possess. Certainly not slight, the analysis of his extant apparels, waistcoats, in particular, demonstrates that John Trumbull, in the equestrian portrait of 1790, got Washington better than many other painters.

Cockades, gilded buttons, and the rather narrow cut of the suit made him French and à la mode without turning him into a downright molly. Wary of excesses, Washington nonetheless spent an inordinate amount of time and energy (and certainly money!) to fashion up every aspect of his personal vêtements. In the 50s, as well as in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, the invoices he sent to tailors and purveyors abroad reveal that he cared for fancy, expensive, and tasty items.

The mythic brown inaugural wool broadcloth suit made in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1789, was an episode, as on that particular occasion he wanted to reenact the age of homespun. But in general, he made sure the supply of fashionable items “directly from France” could flow unhampered: superfine broadcloth, ribbons, silks, cambric, plain lawns, linens, flowered patterns, and printed goods had to reach him no matter what.

Of silk was made the “dress bag” that held the president’s queue on dress occasions. Silk stockings, marble colored silk hoses, silk breeches, and silk handkerchiefs adorned his persona. All in all, Washington’s masculinity was smooth and silky—softer than we may at first think.

Featured Image credit: “Washington at Verplanck’s Point” by John Trumbull, 1790, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Ulrich Weizenbaum

    In 1793, when one of his estate managers, Anthony Whitting, whipped a slave named Charlotte, Washington was in full approval. His wife, Martha had deemed her to be “indolent”. Washington wrote, “Your treatment of Charlotte was very proper,” … “and if she or any other of the servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered.” Another of his estate managers, Hiland Crow, was widely known for flogging slaves brutally

  2. Maurizio Valsania

    Ulrich: sure, GW could be very brutal. What about his signing the Fugitive Slave Act, February 1793? What about his dogged commitment to get fugitive Ona Judge back to where she naturally “belonged”? And yet, there was more than just brutality in the type of man GW became. GW was hard and soft at once.

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