N PERSON WASHINGTON was unique. He looked like no one else. To a stature lofty and commanding he united a form of the manliest proportions, and a dignifed, graceful, and imposing carriage. In the prime of life he stood six feet, two inches. From the period of the Revolution there was an evident bending in his frame so passing straight before, but the stoop came from the cares and toils of that arduous contest rather than from years. For his step was firm, his appearance noble and impressive long after the time when the physical properties of men are supposed to wane.
A majestic height was met by corresponding breadth and firmness. His whole person was so cast in nature's finest mould as to resemble an ancient statue, all of whose parts unite to the perfection of the whole. But with all its development of muscular power, Washington's form had no look of bulkiness, and so harmonious were its proportions that he did not appear so tall as his portraits have represented. He was rather spare than full during his whole life.
The strength of Washington's arm was shown on several occasions. He threw a stone from the bed of the stream to the top of the Natural Bridge, Virginia, and another stone across the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. The stone was said to be a piece of slate about the size of a dollar with which he spanned the bold river, and it took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side. Many have since tried this feat, but none have cleared the water.
In 1772 some young men were contending at Mount Vernon in the exercise of pitching the bar. The Colonel looked on for a time, then grasping the missile in his master hand he whirled the iron through the air and it fell far beyond any of its former limits. "You see, young gentlemen," said the chief with a smile, "that my arm yet retains some portion of my early vigour." He was then in his fortieth year and probably in the fullness of his physical powers. Those powers became rather mellowed than decayed by time, for "his age was like lusty winter, frosty yet kindly," and up to his sixty- eighth year he mounted a horse with surprising agility and rode with ease and grace. Rickets, the celebrated equestrian, used to say, "I delight to see the General ride and make it a point to fall in with him when I hear he is out on horseback--his seat is so firm, his management so easy and graceful that I who am an instructor in horsemanship would go to him and learn to ride."
In his later days, the General, desirous of riding pleasantly, procured from the North two horses of a breed for bearing the saddle. They were well to look at, and pleasantly gaited under the saddle, but also scary and therefore unfitted for the service of one who liked to ride quietly on his farm, occasionally dismounting and walking in his fields to inspect improvements. From one of these horses the General sustained a fall--probably the only fall he ever had from a horse in his life. It was upon a November evening, and he was returning from Alexandria to Mount Vernon with three friends and a groom. Having halted a few moments he dismounted, and upon rising in his stirrup again, the horse, alarmed at the glare from a fire near the road-side, sprang from under his rider who came heavily to the ground. His friends rushed to give him assistance, thinking him hurt. But the vigorous old man was upon his feet again, brushing the dust from his clothes, and after thanking those who came to his aid said that he had had a very complete tumble, and that it was owing to a cause no horseman could well avoid or control--that he was only poised in his stirrup, and had not yet gained his saddle when the scary animal sprang from under him.
Bred in the vigorous school of frontier warfare, "the earth for his bed, his canopy the heavens," Washington excelled the hunter and woodsman in their athletic habits and in those trials of manhood which filled the hardy days of his early life. He was amazingly swift of foot, and could climb steep mountains seemingly without effort. Indeed in all the tests of his great physical powers he appeared to make little effort. When he overthrew the strong man of Virginia in wrestling, upon a day when many of the finest athletes were engaged in the contest, he had retired to the shade of a tree intent upon the reading of a book. It was only after the champion of the games strode through the ring calling for nobler antagonists, and taunting the reader with the fear that he would be thrown, that Washington closed his book. Without taking off his coat he calmly observed that fear did not enter his make-up; then grappling with the champion he hurled him to the ground. "In Washington's lion-like grasp," said the vanquished wrestler, "I became powerless, and went down with a force that seemed to jar the very marrow in my bones." The victor, regardless of shouts at his success, leisurely retired to his shade, and again took up his book.
Washington's powers were chiefly in his limbs. His frame was of equal breadth from the shoulders to the hips. His chest was not prominent but rather hollowed in the centre. He never entirely recovered from a pulmonary affection from which he suffered in early life. His frame showed an extraordinary development of bone and muscle; his joints were large, as were his feet; and could a cast of his hand have been preserved, it would be ascribed to a being of a fabulous age. Lafayette said, "I never saw any human being with so large a hand as the General's."
Of the awe and reverence which the presence of Washington inspired we have many records. "I stood," says one writer, "before the door of the Hall of Congress in Philadelphia when the carriage of the President drew up. It was a white coach, or rather of a light cream colour, painted on the panels with beautiful groups representing the four seasons. As Washington alighted and, ascending the steps, paused on the platform, he was preceded by two gentleman bearing large white wands, who kept back the eager crowd that pressed on every side. At that moment I stood so near I might have touched his clothes; but I should as soon have thought of touching an electric battery. I was penetrated with deepest awe. Nor was this the feeling of the school-boy I then was. It pervaded, I believe, every human being that approached Washington; and I have been told that even in his social hours, this feeling in those who shared them never suffered intermission. I saw him a hundred times afterward but never with any other than the same feeling. The Almighty, who raised up for our hour of need a man so peculiarly prepared for its whole dread responsibility, seems to have put a stamp of sacredness upon his instrument. The first sight of the man struck the eye with involuntary homage and prepared everything around him to obey.
"At the time I speak of he stood in profound silence and had the statue-like air which mental greatness alone can bestow. As he turned to enter the building, and was ascending the staircase to the Congressional hall, I glided along unseen, almost under the cover of the skirts of his dress, and entered into the lobby of the House which was in session to receive him.
"At Washington's entrance there was a most profound silence. House, lobbies, gallery, all were wrapped in deepest attention. And the souls of the entire assemblage seemed peering from their eyes as the noble figure deliberately and unaffectedly advanced up the broad aisle of the hall between ranks of standing senators and members, and slowly ascended the steps leading to the speaker's chair.
"The President having seated himself remained in silence, and the members took their seats, waiting for the speech. No house of worship was ever more profoundly still than that large and crowded chamber.
"Washington was dressed precisely as Stuart has painted him in full- length portrait--in a full suit of the richest black velvet, with diamond knee-buckles and square silver buckles set upon shoes japanned with most scrupulous neatness; black silk stockings, his shirt ruffled at the breast and waist, a light dress sword, his hair profusely powdered, fully dressed, so as to project at the sides, and gathered behind in a silk bag ornamented with a large rose of black ribbon. He held his cocked hat, which had a large black cockade on one side of it, in his hand, as he advanced toward the chair, and when seated, laid it on the table.
"At length thrusting his hand within the side of his coat, he drew forth a roll of manuscript which he opened, and rising read in a rich, deep, full, sonorous voice his opening address to Congress. His enunciation was deliberate, justly emphasised, very distinct, and accompanied with an air of deep solemnity as being the utterance of a mind conscious of the whole responsibility of its position, but not oppressed by it. There was ever about the man something which impressed one with the conviction that he was exactly and fully equal to what he had to do. He was never hurried; never negligent; but seemed ever prepared for the occasion, be it what it might. In his study, in his parlour, at a levee, before Congress, at the head of the army, he seemed ever to be just what the situation required. He possessed, in a degree never equalled by any human being I ever saw, the strongest, most ever-present sense of propriety."
In the early part of Washington's administration, great complaints were made by political opponents of the aristocratic and royal demeanour of the President. Particularly, these complaints were about the manner of his receiving visitors. In a letter Washington gave account of the origin of his levees: "Before the custom was established," he wrote, "which now accommodates foreign characters, strangers and others, who, from motives of curiosity, respect for the chief magistrate, or other cause, are induced to call upon me, I was unable to attend to any business whatever; for gentlemen, consulting their own convenience rather than mine, were calling after the time I rose from breakfast, and often before, until I sat down to dinner. This, as I resolved not to neglect my public duties, reduced me to the choice of one of these alternatives: either to refuse visits altogether, or to appropriate a time for the reception of them. ... To please everybody was impossible. I therefore, adopted that line of conduct which combined public advantage with private convenience. ... These visits are optional, they are made without invitation; between the hours of three and four every Tuesday I am prepared to receive them. Gentlemen, often in great numbers, come and go, chat with each other, and act as they please. A porter shows them into the room, and they retire from it when they choose, without ceremony. At their first entrance they salute me, and I them, and as many as I can I talk to."
An English gentleman after visiting President Washington wrote, "There was a commanding air in his appearance which excited respect and forbade too great a freedom toward him, independently of that species of awe which is always felt in the moral influence of a great character. In every movement, too, there was a polite gracefulness equal to any met with in the most polished individuals of Europe, and his smile was extraordinarily attractive. ... It struck me no man could be better formed for command. A stature of six feet, a robust but well--proportioned frame calculated to stand fatigue, without that heaviness which generally attends great muscular strength and abates active exertion, displayed bodily power of no mean standard. A light eye and full-the very eye of genius and reflection. His nose appeared thick, and though it befitted his other features was too coarsely and strongly formed to be the handsomest of its class. His mouth was like no other I ever saw: the lips firm, and the under-jaw seeming to grasp the upper with force, as if its muscles were in full action when he sat still."
Such Washington appeared to those who saw and knew him. Such he remains to our vision. His memory is held by us in undying honour. Not only his memory alone but also the memory of his associates in the struggle for American Independence. Homage we should have in our hearts for those patriots and heroes and sages who with humble means raised their native land-now our native land--from the depths of dependence, and made it a free nation. And especially for Washington, who presided over the nation's course at the beginning of the great experiment in self-government and, after an unexampled career in the service of freedom and our humankind, with no dimming of august fame, died calmly at Mount Vernon--the Father of his Country.
(Adapted from "Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington," by G. W. Parke Custis)