The Regional Review

Volume IV - Nos. 4 & 5

April-May, 1940

Wakefield: Two Images of the Man Born There
The Kitchen, Wellhouse and Memorial Mansion at George Washington Birthplace National Monument
Regional Supervisor of Historic Sites
Richmond, Virginia

In Tidewater Virginia, a land known for its many places of serene and enchanting beauty, few spots impress the senses and the mind as does Wakefield, the birthplace of George Washington.

Called the "Athens of America," Westmoreland County, at the place of Washington's birth, meets the majestic Potomac, The River of Swans, where the stream is six miles wide and has a tide of about two feet. Popes Creek, curving gracefully from the right of the birth site, expands suddenly into an estuary as the hesitant water reluctantly moves to join the river, a half-mile away. Dancing Marsh, a small stream situated to the north and flowing into Popes Creek, completes the agents of nature which have sculptured the birthplace spot into a gently elevated promontory. From here a vista of lawn, trees, marsh, and water reaches to the distant blue line of the Maryland shore. The place is a haven for wildlife; ducks and geese are afforded a refuge by Popes Creek, and birds find a natural environment in the trees and shrubs that grace the landscape. Wild turkeys roam the woods and fields of the old place, and horses and sheep enliven the rural scene of green fields enclosed by old Virginia worm and post rail fences. A veteran hackberry tree and fig bushes rise from the soil at the site they have marked so long, derived undoubtedly from plants which grew on the place when Washington was a boy.

At Wakefield the restful scene insensibly induces a feeling of peace and tranquillity. There is no need for a guide. Human companionship here can become oppressive. The sky and the water and the earth tell their own story. Memories grip the mind, as if time itself had stood still, and ancient trees with their canopies of whispering leaves offer sanctuary to reverie.

Occupancy and use of the Washington ancestral lands in Virginia by Colonial settlers began as early as 1655-1657, within fifty years after the founding of the settlement of Jamestown. Federal ownership at the site of Washington's birth began in 1882 when the State of Virginia and the Washington heir vested title to their small holdings in the United States of America. The work of the Wakefield National Memorial Association, which was organized in Washington, D. C., on Washington's birthday in 1923 and incorporated the following year under the laws of Virginia, together with the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., made possible the present extensive holding of the government at the old Augustine Washington plantation, now George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

map of Washington family plantation
Map Showing Boundaries of Washington Family Plantation

Among the features of the grounds surrounding the memorial mansion is a typical colonial garden where, with the beauties of nature visible on all sides and the quiet and fragrance of the Tidewater Virginia countryside insensibly comforting, it is easy to linger and forget the passing of time. The poetic words on the sun dial seem convincingly true:

A place of rose and thyme and scented earth,
   A place the world forgot,
But here a matchless flower came to birth -
   Time paused and blessed the spot.

Houdon Statue (1791)

It is natural for the visitor at Wakefield to speculate on the appearance and character of the man who was born there. The question arises: is it possible to know what Washington was like? Can the mind form a faithful image of his figure and personality? Fortunately, the answer can be made in the affirmative. Two of his contemporaries, each skilled in his own mode of expression, have left us enduring portraits of George Washington, the Man. One, a great French sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon, has left us in white Carrara marble, a faithful likeness of Washington's figure and bearing; the other, Thomas Jefferson, has left an un forgettable word picture of the great man's character and personality.

The boy born on the bank of Popes Creek is shown grown to maturity and at the height of his physical and mental powers in the life statue by Houdon. This magnificent statue is mounted in the rotunda of the state capitol in Richmond. It is justly famous, and probably is the most valuable piece of sculpture in the United States.

The Virginia General Assembly on May 14, 1784, voted that a statue of George Washington should be made for the state. The responsibility for selecting a suitable sculptor was entrusted to Thomas Jefferson, then Minister to France. Jefferson conferred in Paris with Benjamin Franklin and their choice narrowed down to Canova in Rome and Houdon in Paris, with the commission finally going to Houdon, the younger man, who indicated his willingness to come to America to study Washington in person. Houdon left France in August, 1784, in company with Franklin for the journey to America, and arrived October 2 at Mount Vernon, Washington's estate in Fairfax County, Virginia. He remained for two weeks and studied Washington carefully, took precise measurements, and made a plaster life cast of his features. He also modeled in clay a bust of the great man.

Houdon received $5,000 from the State of Virginia for the statue it had ordered. Apparently, he did not begin work on the marble statue until 1788 or 1789 and it was not completed until 1791. Thus, it will be observed, the inscription on the pedestal of the statue stating that it was done in 1788 is in error. The statue remained in France until 1796 when it was shipped to the United States and placed in the Virginia capitol on May 14, 1796. The delay in transporting the statue to Virginia was due to the fact that the capitol, then under construction, was not ready to receive it earlier.

The statue is life-size in all details and stands 6 feet 2 inches tall. Houdon's phenomenal knowledge of anatomy and his mastery of the art of embodying this science in his completed work is shown clearly in the statue of Washington. It was Houdon's intention that it should stand without a pedestal, thus simulating the appearance of Washington himself standing in the rotunda. At the time the state had ordered the statue made, however, it had been determined also to provide it with a suitable inscription. James Madison was chosen to write the words of commemoration. The inscription he prepared required a base five feet high, and this accounts for the manner in which the statue is mounted on a pedestal five feet above the level of the floor. In the opinion of most critics, the statue loses some of its power and effect in being placed at this elevation. Madison's words, which were not inscribed on the pedestal of the statue until 1814, are as follows:

The General Assembly of the Commonwealth
of Virginia have caused this statue to be erected,
as a monument of affection and gratitude to
George Washington:
who uniting to the endowments of the Hero
the virtues of the Patriot, and exerting both
in establishing the Liberties of his Country
has rendered his name dear to his Fellow Citizens,
and given the work an immortal example
of true Glory.

The pose chosen by Houdon for the statue was based upon his observation of Washington's manner in peremptorily dismissing a horse trader who had suggested a dishonorable advantage in a trade. While Washington is shown in the uniform of a General of the Revolutionary Army it will be observed that his sword and military cloak hang on the bundle of fasces, the ancient Roman symbol of civil authority, and here composed of 13 sticks in all, one for each of the original thirteen states. The fasces rest against a plowshare, the symbol for peaceful occupation and the basis of national strength.

Lafayette upon seeing this statue declared, "it is a facsimile of Washington's person". Gilbert Stuart thought it the best likeness in existence. Chief Justice John Marshall stated, "Nothing in bronze or stone could be a more perfect image than this statue of the living Washington". Rembrandt Peale, who lived on the same square in Philadelphia with Washington during the latter's second term as President, and who became familiar with his appearance, said of the statue that if it were observed from the southeast corner of the rotunda the observer might well think he were beholding Washington himself. Here, then, in the Houdon statue we have an enduring physical likeness of the Father of Our Country. He lives for us in marble and we may know the commanding power of his presence.

Likewise in reading Thomas Jefferson's words the mind is equally impressed, for his analytic phrases have fashioned a vivid image of the inner Washington. Jefferson was one of Washington's greatest contemporaries, and few men of penetrating intellect had the opportunity of knowing and observing him in the years of his maturity and greatest power as did Jefferson. That Jefferson differed with Washington on many subjects and opposed the principles of government which Hamilton urged on the latter during the years of his Presidency is well known. This fact makes his opinion the more important and respected, since it was that of a man who could and did differ strongly from the views held by the person who was the subject of his remarks.

More than fourteen years after the death of George Washington, a letter from Dr. Walter Jones, a student of political affairs, reached Jefferson at Monticello. Enclosed with the letter was a paper Dr. Jones had written on the state of the country and the character of many of its leading men since the founding of the government. Jefferson was asked to review what had been written and to offer comment. Jefferson wrote to Dr. Jones under date of January 2, 1814, and in the course of his letter made what is probably the most eloquent, fair, and correct appraisal of Washington that can be found in the written language of any people.

Jefferson's characterization of Washington is not generally known. Not many years ago John Bassett Moore, while serving as a judge of the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague, read a French version of it in a Paris newspaper. In the United States afterward it required a long search before Judge Moore located the original English text. The full text of this letter, of which only a portion is reproduced here, may be found in Paul Leicester Ford's The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, volume IX, pages 446-451, published in 1898.

"...I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these.

"His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion. Hence the common remark of his officers, of the advantage he derived from councils of war, where hearing all suggestions, he selected whatever was best; and certainly no General ever planned his battles more judiciously. But if deranged during the course of the action, if any member of his plan was dislocated by sudden circumstances, he was slow in re-adjustment. The consequence was, that he often failed in the field, and rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York. He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. 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 words, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath. In his expenses he was honorable, but exact; liberal in contributions to whatever promised utility, but frowning and unyielding on all visionary projects and all unworthy calls on his charity. His heart was not warm in its affections; but he exactly calculated every man's value, and gave him a solid esteem proportioned to it. His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback. Although in the circle of his friends, where he might be unreserved with safety, he took a free share in conversation, his colloquial talents were not above mediocrity, possessing neither copiousness of ideas, nor fluency of words. In public, when called on for a sudden opinion, he was unready, short and embarrassed. Yet he wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy and correct style. This he had acquired by conversation with the world, for his education was merely reading, writing and common arithmetic, to which he added surveying at a later day. His time was employed in action chiefly, reading little, and that only in agriculture and English history. His correspondence became necessarily extensive, and, with journalizing his agricultural proceedings, occupied most of his leisure hours within doors. On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example."

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Date: 04-Jul-2002