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Rediscovering George Washington
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Washington's Greatness
Appearance & Reality
Qualities of Mind & Character
Appearance & Reality

The Physical Characteristics of Washington

Why should we be interested in the physical appearance of Washington? For three reasons:

First, recorded impressions of his contemporaries make very clear that his physical appearance--his stature, bearing, and countenance--reflected to a remarkable degree the distinctive qualities of his mind and character. As the Marquis de Chastellux records in his notes, "[T]he strongest characteristic of this respectable man is the perfect harmony which reigns between the physical and moral qualities which compose his personality. . . . It is not my intention to exaggerate. I wish only to express the impression General Washington has left on my mind, the idea of a perfect whole."[7]

Second, his sheer personal presence was a significant and characteristic part of his greatness and of his influence on the world. In battle and in counsel, he often exerted a powerful impact on those around him just by being there and being the man he was. As Lafayette observed at the Battle of Monmouth, where Washington’s appearance on the scene stopped a confused and panicked retreat, "General Washington seemed to arrest fortune with one glance."[8]

Third, though the mere image of Washington was a source of strength and encouragement to the Revolutionary and Founding generation of Americans, time has removed him from the active imaginations of most Americans or left at best a faded distortion of the original. This is our loss. We can benefit ourselves by rekindling in our mind’s eye those features of Washington that so eloquently reflected his virtues and inspired his compatriots to noble deeds.

Here is how a fellow officer described him when he was just twenty-six. "[S]traight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 pounds. . . . His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large, as are his hands and feet. He is wide shouldered but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips and has rather long legs and arms. His head is well-shaped, though not large, but is gracefully poised on a superb neck. A large and straight rather than a prominent nose; blue gray penetrating eyes which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow. His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones, and terminates in a good firm chin. He has a clear though rather a colorless pale skin which burns with the sun. A pleasing and benevolent though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair which he wears in a cue.

His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth. His features are regular and placid with all the muscles of his face under perfect control, though flexible and expressive of deep feeling when moved by emotions. In conversation, he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential, and engaging. His voice is agreeable rather than strong. His demeanor at all times composed and dignified. His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a splendid horseman."[9]

When he was selected Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington’s appearance began to become familiar to his countrymen and to the world. The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser in London reported that "Not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chambre by his side."[10]

The painter Gilbert Stuart was to find "features in his face totally different from what I had observed in any other human being. The sockets of the eyes, for instance, were larger than what I had ever met before, and the upper part of the nose broader. . . . All his features were indicative of the strongest passions, yet, like Socrates, his judgment and self-command made him appear of a different cast in the eyes of the world. . . . Had he been born in the forests . . . he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes."[11]

In 1789, Jedidiah Morse described Washington as "tall, upright, and well made; in his manner easy and unaffected. His eyes were of a bluish cast, not prominent, indicative of deep thoughtfulness, and when in action, on great occasions remarkably lively. His features strong, manly, and commanding; his temper reserved and serious; his countenance grave, composed, sensible. There was in his whole appearance an unusual dignity and gracefulness which at once secured him profound respect, and cordial esteem. He seemed born to command his fellow men."[12]

What common soldiers repeatedly confirmed in more homely style, Gouverneur Morris, in his eulogy of Washington in 1799, said in lofty phrases: "Born to high destinies, he was fashioned for them by the hand of nature. His form was noble—his port majestic. On his front were enthroned the virtues which exalt, and those which adorn the human character. So dignified his deportment, no man could approach him but with respect—none was great in his presence. You have all seen him, and you all have felt the reverence he inspired. . . ."

Such, then, is the reality of Washington’s appearance. A multitude of witnesses, of many nationalities, friends and enemies, different political parties, young and old, military and civilian, men and women of high and low station confirm what Dr. James Thacher recorded in 1778: "The serenity of his countenance, and majestic gracefulness of his deportment, impart a strong impression of that dignity and grandeur, which are his peculiar characteristics, and no one can stand in his presence without feeling the ascendancy of his mind, and associating with his countenance the idea of wisdom, philanthropy, magnanimity, and patriotism."[13]

To know such a Washington is to understand why a patriotic soldier in desperate times might beg him to be king of America; to understand Washington is to know why to be king would be beneath him.