CASE 1—GETTING TO KNOW THE MAN BEHIND THE IMAGE

CASE 2—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT,PART I

CASE 3—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT, PART II

CASE 4—THE NORTHERN NECK

CASE 5—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART I

CASE 6—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART II

CASE 7—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART I

CASE 8—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART II

CASE 9—PLANTER, POLITICIAN, AND PATRIOT

CASE 10—THE MAN, PART I

CASE 11—THE MAN, PART II

CASE 12—THE MAN, PART III

CASE 13—THE MAN, PART IV

CASE 14—THE MAN, PART V

CASE 15—DEATH AND APOTHEOSIS

CASE 16—PRESERVING THE MEMORY

CLEMENTS LIBRARY

George Washington: getting to know the man behind the image

This website is a record of the exhibit, as it appeared in the display cases of the William L. Clements Library. Each page features an image of a single display case and its contents, with details of the artifacts and the accompanying text below. Please click on the images to view enlargements and use the "back" button on your browser to return.

Copyrights to the contents of this exhibit, both text and images, are held by the Clements Library. Permission for use and reproduction must be obtained in advance from the director of the Clements Library.

Case 15Death and Apotheosis

George Washington died unexpectedly at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. One of the greatest treasures in the Clements collection is a lengthy, original letter of Washington's personal secretary, Tobias Lear, describing the last illness and death. This particular letter, one of several Lear wrote, is the longest and finest eyewitness description of the event that exists, providing many details available nowhere else.

Please click on image to view all twelve pages.

There was a tremendous outpouring of public grief, even from those who had differed in their political sentiments during the latter years of Washington's presidency. Funeral orations were delivered in almost every town and every church in the country. Washington was compared to all the great figures of the classical and Biblical world, and the two prints displayed here are excellent commentary on Washington historiography in the next few decades. America needed a hero. It needed a saint, and the real Washington got lost for awhile in the process.

 

George Washington's will, probated shortly after his death, was twenty-nine pages long, written entirely in his own hand.

Washington owned slaves his entire life. As with many sensitive subjects, including religion (he was a Deist, and not a particularly regular churchgoer, although he firmly believed in a higher power), he had kept his own views on the institution of slavery quiet during his own lifetime.

By the terms of the will, he freed and provided support for all of his slaves, making it clear by his wording that he was very much opposed to slavery.

 

Historians have always had a running debate about whether individual people affect history or historical trends and events essentially "create" the leaders needed at a particular time and place. Biographers emphasize the influence of "great" men and women in changing the course of world events. Social historians tend to view people as pawns of larger forces of change.

George Washington fulfilled a unique role in American history. He was not only the commander of the army that won the war but the figurehead and personal embodiment of the cause. He was the first President. Everything that he did set precedents.

He was a man of his times, but he was unusual. He was as different from most of his contemporaries as was his handwriting. Some special combination of family influences and early experiences gave him a personality and disposition uniquely suited to meeting the particular challenges thrust upon him by the times and by his world.

He is not considered to be a great thinker, but his thought processes, captured in the etiquette and processes of how our military and government operates, left a more permanent imprint on the country than those of his intellectual peers. He is not considered a brilliant military mind, but his victories have had far greater long-term impact on world history than those of Frederick the Great or Napoleon.

It is very easy to undervalue the man or take him for granted. Perhaps that, in itself, pinpoints the nature of his legacy--the incorruptible, "inner-directed man", the role model and essence of a character-type that remains peculiarly American, elusive to others, and very much alive in this country today.