World War II poster alluding to Valley Forge, where George Washington's Continental Army spent a harsh winter in 1777-78.
Credit: Image courtesy of The National Archives.
How does an individual become the embodiment of a nation? Can the process be reversed to permit a glimpse into the human life underlying the symbol?
Ask students about George Washington's role in American culture, as both a historical individual and as a national symbol. What do we represent with his image? What do we commemorate with his name?
Have students read two of the Washington documents in the American Memory collection: his September 11, 1777 dispatch from Chester, Pennsylvania, reporting his defeat at the Battle of Brandywine Creek to the Continental Congress in nearby Philadelphia (found in the "Documents of the Continental Congress" collection); and his First Inaugural Address, delivered in New York City in 1789 (found in the "Words and Deeds" collection, where it is presented in manuscript; students should be asked to find a printed copy in the school or their local public library.) Ask students to comment on the stylistic differences between the two documents, the dispatch clear and direct, the inaugural address artful and ornate. To what extent did the style of each address suit the occasion?
Draw students' attention to Washington's account of the battle. Does he consider it a serious setback? What indications does he give of the extent of American losses? How does he explain what happened? You might compare Washington's dispatch with its companion on this Revolutionary War broadside, a report by Robert Harrison of his successful encounter earlier in the day with the troops that drove Washington's force from its position. How does Washington emerge in the comparison?
Next turn to Washington's First Inaugural Address. Point out to students that he opens his address with a long description of his own frame of mind upon accepting his country's call to become its first President. How does he portray himself on this occasion? What is his role in relation to the Congress? to the American people? To what extent is he striving to shape his own public image? To what extent is he trying to underscore the significance of the occasion itself? Have students draw evidence from the speech to support both of these interpretations. Follow up this comparison of the two documents by asking students what other archival sources they would need to consult to substantiate their conclusions about George Washington, the man.
Divide the class into research teams to explore some of the ways George Washington has been transformed into a symbol of our nation. Students might begin this phase of the lesson by reading the 1994 article "The Surprising George Washington," by Richard Norton Smith, which can be found in the online edition of Prologue at the National Archives website. The article includes two "albums" of Washington images, including mythical stories about him, such as of his chopping down a cherry tree and of his assumption into heaven. Students can find illustrations that highlight Washington's accomplishments in battle in a collection of Revolutionary War images also available at the National Archives website. There are several portraits of Washington at the American Memory website as well. If your students have limited access to the Internet, print out a selection of images from these sources and provide each research team with a set. Students should also be encouraged to extend their research to include books about Washington available at the library.
Direct each research team to categorize their images of George Washington according to the role he plays: country gentleman, general, national leader, chief executive, etc. Have them look for similarities in the way he is portrayed in these varied settings, and speculate on the symbolism of characteristic poses and gestures (reining in his horse, raising his arm). Ask each group to prepare a "gallery talk" on three representative images of Washington in their collection, explaining what they represent about Washington's role in our culture as well as what they illustrate about his life.
Depending on your curriculum, you might update this lesson by having students investigate how heroes are created in our own time, focusing on superstars in sports and entertainment. (See, for example, the material on Jackie Robinson at the National Archives website.) Have students ask their parents about legendary figures whom they admired when they were growing up. How are these legends regarded today? You might also extend this lesson by comparing the characteristics of a national hero like Washington with the traits of mythic heroes like Hercules and King Arthur, or literary heroes like Shakespeare's Henry V or the dictator in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch.
2 class periods