America's Founding Drama

by Richard J. Behn

"The Citizens of America," wrote General Washington in a circular letter to the states in June 1783, "are, from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre."1 America's Founders wrote the script - for a nation and for how that nation's future citizens would view them. Their real-life dramas were written for a larger audience on the world stage. Many of the Founders had a sense of drama and a love of drama. They didn't actually write and produce plays as did one British general, "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, who presented "The Blockade of Boston" when he garrisoned that city in 1775.

Massachusetts patriot Mercy Otis Warren was the exception to that rule; she literally wrote the script for her political dramas - though the "plays" she wrote were meant to be read rather than seen; drama was legally forbidden in the Bay State in the Revolutionary War era. "Warren never saw a stage production in her life. But she admired the satire of the French playwright Molière, whom she had read," Linda Grant De Pauw wrote in Founding Mothers. "The Adulateur was followed by The Defeat, The Group, The Blockheads, and The Motley Assembly. In all of these easily recognizable local Loyalists appear under such names as Patio, Judge Meagre, Sir Spendall, and Hum Humbug."2 These archetypes were among the targets in the arsenal of colonial patriotism.

In 1765 Warren's friend John Adams wrote that America "was designed by Providence for the Theatre, on which Man was to make his true figure, on which science, Virtue, Liberty, Happiness and Glory were to exist in Peace."3 The leading Founders, especially Benjamin Franklin and George Washington learned to play their heroic parts very close to perfection. They even dressed for their parts. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote that Franklin "was a man superbly of the eighteenth century, wearing masks as that century taught men to do. So he always appeared in the character of a gentleman."4 Wood wrote that "no one in eighteenth-century America assumed more personas and played more roles than he."5

Deliberately, President Thomas Jefferson presented himself differently. He wanted to portray a conscious break with the two presidents who preceded him. Stewart Alsop, a distinguished journalist in the 20th Century, noted that Thomas "Jefferson received the aristocratic [British ambassador] wearing 'yarn stockings and slippers down at heel' for essentially the same reason that Nikita Khrushchev refused to wear evening dress when he was received at Dwight Eisenhower's White House. A tuxedo is to a devout, old-line Communist a symbol of capitalism; and Jefferson's down-at-heel slippers and casual manners were similarly symbolic, of an anti-aristocratic and revolutionary democracy."6 Historian Richard Brookhiser wrote: "Some of the most dramatic changes President [Thomas] Jefferson made in political life concerned etiquette and appearance - riding on horseback instead of in a coach, wearing corduroy breeches; allowing his dinner guests at the White House to sit wherever they liked instead of seating them formally. As eloquently as any inaugural address, these gestures conveyed a message; the pomp of Federalism was gone; republican simplicity had been restored."7

"The greatest master of dramatic gesture was George Washington, whether he rode into battle to inspire courage, or sent a wine cooler to show confidence," continued Brookhiser.8 Historian Peter R. Henriques noted: "Politics is theater, and Washington was America's first great actor-president, a man who very much saw himself as a figure on the stage and often used theatrical images to convey his thoughts."9 Historian Richard Norton Smith wrote: "Long before assuming the presidency...Washington was adept at putting himself in settings designed to exploit his unique standing, displaying a personal magnetism that projected to the second balcony."10

Washington understood the necessity for Americans to be appropriately costumed for their parts. As the commander of the Virginia Regiment in 1754, Washington ordered: "Every officer of the Virginia Regiment is, as soon as possible, to provide himself with uniform Dress, which is to be of fine Broad Cloath: The Coat Blue, faced and cuffed with Scarlet, and Trimmed with Silver: The Waistcoat Scarlet, with a plain Silver Lace, if to be had - the Breeches to be Blue, and every one to provide himself with a silver-laced Hat, of a Fashionable size."11 When the second Continental Congress met, "Washington wore his Virginia Regiment uniform to these sessions, the one he had donned while sitting for his portrait three years before. It was a none too subtle hint of his ambitions," wrote biographer John Ferling.12

After Washington's death, John Adams called him: "The best act of presidency we have ever had." Gordon S. Wood wrote: "As the first president he faced circumstances that no other president has ever faced, and he was the only person in the country who could have dealt with them."13 It was a role that Washington may not have been born to play, but for which he assiduously prepared. And one he continued to play to the end of his life. Historian Jay Winik observed that at Washington's home "there was always a kind of ritualistic unfolding of the day, from the first gray moments of dawn to the long olive twilight, a veritable private pageant for the president. He would typically awake at five o'clock with the rising of the sun, power his hair, don his clothes, and eat a light breakfast of soft corncakes buttered and coated with honey. From this moment on, he was the playwright, producer, director, stage manager, and, of course, hero of the day's performance."14

Teenager George Washington had begun reading plays decades before the American Revolution. Historian David McCullough wrote: "He had seen his first known theatrical production at age nineteen on a trip with his older brother to Barbados."15 According to biographer Willard Sterne Randall, he "read every word he could find about the London theater, probably in Gentleman's Magazine."16 As a young planter, he attended plays in Alexandria, Williamsburg, and Baltimore. According to biographer Willard Sterne Randall, "His choice of plays leaned heavily toward drama that taught moral lessons and contained a strong political message." As a Revolutionary War general, George Washington saw several theatrical productions and staged some for his officers - despite a congressional ruling that such performances should be prohibited.17 American sensitivity to theatrical productions was heightened by the degree to which British officers occupying cities like Philadelphia enjoyed them. Elected the nation's chief executive in 1788, noted biographer Richard Brookhiser, Washington became "America's most theatrical and theater-loving of presidents."18

Theater was controversial in the years around the American Revolution. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote:"Everywhere during the 1780s and 1790s - in New York, Philadelphia, Albany, Charleston, Portsmouth, Providence, Boston, and elsewhere - disputes broke out over the establishing of theaters Of course, in most communities there were well-to-do elites that enjoyed the theater and had no problem with such expressions of luxury as tea parties and theatrical productions. But they had to contend with growing numbers...who feared the influence of the theater and resented those wealthy merchants and luxury-loving professionals who favored it."19

Because theater was banned in Boston, Abigail Adams was unable to attend the theater until she and her husband John were posted to Europe in the early 1780s. In 1750, a law had passed the Massachusetts legislature: "For preventing and avoiding the many and great mischiefs which arise from public stage-plays, &c. which not only occasion great and unnecessary expenses, and discourage industry and frugality, but likewise tend generally to increase immorality, impiety, and a contempt of religion," they enacted as follows: "that from and after the publication of this act, no person or persons whatsoever may, for his or their gain, or for any price or valuable consideration, let, or suffer to be used or improved, any house, room, or place whatsoever, for acting or carrying on any stage-plays, interludes, or other theatrical entertainments, on pain of forfeiting and paying for each and every day, or time, such house, room, or place, shall be let, used, or improved, contrary to this act, twenty pounds. And if, at any time or times whatsoever, from and after the publication of this act, any person or persons shall be present as an actor in or spectator of any stage-play, &c. in any house, &c. where a greater number of persons than twenty shall be assembled together, every such person shall forfeit for each time five pounds. One-half to his majesty, and one-half to the informer."20

John Adams had discovered the theater in Paris before his wife arrived. McCullough wrote that "as often as he could, he attended the theater, usually taking [son] John Quincy with him. Adams would bring the text of the play in hand, so they could follow the lines as spoken."21 Thomas Jefferson also became a theater fan when he was posted to Paris in 1783. Historian William Howard Adams wrote: "Jefferson frequented several of the leading Paris theaters, where he saw plays by Racine, Molière, Lasage, and Dancourt. But the most notable production he attended was Beaumarchais' Mariage de Fiagro, ou La Folle Journée, in which the nobility and the established order were skewered while the insolvent servant Figaro was portrayed as virtue personified." The play was considered subversive by the royal court.22

Historian Heather S. Nathans noted: "The battle waged between pro-and anti-theater factions began almost with the founding of the colonies, and lasted up until the time of the Revolution." She wrote: "To members of religious sects, such as the New England Puritans, the Pennsylvania Quakers, and the New York Presbyterians, the theater threatened to subvert their plans for establishing ideal societies. To members of the pre-war elite in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, theatrical entertainments were a necessary status symbol signifying their importance not only within the colony, but as part of the larger Atlantic world." In 1774 and 1778, the Continental Congress banned theater as a "violation of colonial political goals."23 Theater was nevertheless alive and well back in Philadelphia where General Washington attended plays during the winter of 1781-82. But even after the Revolutionary War ended, opposition to the theater did not disappear. Historian Joseph Ellis wrote that "the elimination of legal constraints caused opponents of the stage to intensify their criticism in the late 1780s and '90s."24

Theater was alive in New York in 1789 when George Washington arrived to take over his duties as president and John Adams took over much less onerous duties as vice president.25 President Washington seldom missed a theater performance in the nation's first capitals - first in New York and later in Philadelphia. Gordon Wood wrote: "Washington loved the theater, but he had to defend it solely on the grounds that it would 'advance the interest of private and public virtue' and 'polish the manners and habits of society."26 Historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick wrote: "The New York theater was itself the object of considerable social opposition....Stage plays continued to be denounced by the clergy and many others, and a number of petitions to the Common Council and the state legislature urged that such spectacles be suppressed.... Washington loved the theater; he got up theater parties during the season of 1789 and took various high dignitaries and members of Congress with him."27 The center of drama was the John Street Theater, which had been founded more than 15 years earlier and had been renamed the "Theatre Royal" when British soldiers put on drama during their occupation.28 Historian Richard E. Labunski noted: "In 1789, the theater offered seventy-four comedies, farces, comic operas, tragedies, and other entertainment, which many members of Congress could not see at home."29

While on diplomatic duty in London and Paris and government duty in New York and Philadelphia, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Jay, regularly attended the theater. After attending the Drury Lane Theater in London, Jay wrote his wife to report that it was 'neat and well-lighted, but not so magnificent as those at Paris."30 Jay biographer Frank Monaghan commented: "The theater did not receive his encouragement, for he thought it unnecessary to resort there to observe tragedy: the world was filled with it. Yet he read many dramas and never sought to restrain his wife in her enthusiasm for the theater."31 The Jays received and accepted an invitation to the theater from President Washington in November 1789. Given the raucous nature of the New York theaters, Washington wrote that "any reluctance to visiting the theater" would be an acceptable excuse." In later life, Jay grew more strict in his religious views and less tolerant of frivolity, writing in 1813 that "From me [theater] neither have received nor will receive encouragement."32

Other leaders in America's first government were unrepentant theater goers. As a middle-aged lawyer in New York City, Jay's friend Alexander Hamilton attended the theater just as regularly as his mentor George Washington. Hamilton's fascination with the theater began as a college undergraduate, noted biographer WiIlard Sterne Randall, when he "undoubtedly saw [The Tempest] at the John Street Playhouse."33 Hamilton's sister-in-law and brother-in-law were friends of British playwright Richard Sheridan and regular patrons of the Drury Lane Theater in London.

The drama center of New York was the Old American Company on John Street which featured "the plays of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Garrick, and some of indifferent merit," wrote Jefferson biographer Claude Bowers. "Here 'The Father,' by William Dunlap, the historian of the American theater, had its first presentation - a notable event, since Washington, a spectator, was seen to laugh at the comedy."34 Washington was present for Dunlap's "Darby's Return," a play which made direct references to Washington.35 Dunlap recalled: "The eyes of the audience were frequently bent upon his countenance and to watch the emotions produced by any particular passage upon him was the simultaneous employment of all."36 Washington braved potential public disapproval by attending regularly plays with his wife and guests.

Historian Patricia Brady wrote: "His and Martha's attendance was advertised in advance to drum up business, their arrival greeted with 'The President's March' and a standing ovation."37 Washington was dedicated enough to the theater to brave criticism by attending "School for Scandal." A grumpy senator from Pennsylvania who attended as Washington's guest described the play as "an indecent representation before ladies of character and virtue."38 Nevertheless, wrote Paul Boller: "Most of Washington's guests were flattered to share the stage box with him and Martha, and they enjoyed taking in the friendly references to the President that turned up in some of the newer productions. Washington's immense pleasure seeing plays was marred only by the fuss people made over him when he appeared at the playhouse."39

By the time the nation's capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Pennsylvania had lifted its prohibition on the presentation of dramas. Among the public leaders of the 1789 effort was William Temple Franklin, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Theater going was interrupted by the yellow fever epidemic of the summer of 1793, but George and Martha Washington continued to attend when possible. After the Yellow Fever epidemic passed, the New Theatre opened near the Washington's Philadelphia residence. Brady noted that "the theater advertised some performances as 'by request' of the president and his family." Patricia Brady noted: "Boasting a talented professional stock company with new scenery and costumes, the theater advertised some performances as 'by request' of the president and his family."40 In Philadelphia, the Founders first attended the South Street or Southwark Theater, where according to Claude G. Bowers, "the best plays were presented, by good if not brilliant players and the aristocracy flirted and frolicked indifferent to the resentful glances of the poorer classes in less favored seats."41 Brady wrote that when "School for Scandal" was performed in Philadelphia, "Washington bought eleven tickets for the evening." The Washingtons also attended the Chestnut Street Theater. Theater would be less successful in the rural environs of the new capital in Washington when the government moved there in 1800. It took only a month in the summer of 1800 for a theater to open and close.42

Washington found "virtue" and "honor" in drama. Unquestionably, Washington's favorite play was Englishman Joseph Addison's The Tragedy of Cato. Biographers of Washington often cite the Cato's influence on Washington's thoughts and actions. Historian William Sterne Randall called Cato "a tale of an uncompromising, incorruptible general who defied tyranny and yet could be compassionate to those loyal to him."43 According to historian Paul K. Longmore, "Addison's tragedy embodied the ideals propounded by [John] Trenchard and [Thomas] Gordon and other Radical Whig writers throughout the eighteenth century. This rather stiff play presents its hero almost as a schematic outline of the Whig ideal of public-minded conduct. Cato flawlessly exemplifies patriotic virtue, especially in his readiness to sacrifice himself and his sons at his country's call. 'Thy life is not thy own, when Rome demands it,' he proclaims."44 As historian John Ferling wrote: "Addison's Cato not only linked success with service and devotion to ones country but taught that one must be deserving of success."45

Addison's Cato was effectively a tutorial play for America's future President.

Written in 1712, the play detailed the final days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis in 45 B.C. as Cato the Younger fought a losing battle to defend the Roman Republic against monarchial designs of Julius Caesar. It was widely interpreted as an extended essay on republican virtue. Cato's impact on Washington's conduct has fascinated historians. Historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick wrote a teenager, Washington "had read Addison's Cato with Sally Fairfax; years later he had the play performed for his troops at Valley Forge; by then, people were saying he was Cato."46 Historian Henry Wiencek wrote: "When Washington wished to bestow the highest praise on an officer for achieving a victory (ironically, it was Benedict Arnold), he sent a message paraphrasing Cato: 'It is not in the power of any man to command success, but you have done more - you have deserved it."47 Historian Garry Wills noted that "George Washington, who never learned Latin (or any foreign language) acquired his sense of ancient ideals from more popular channels, principally the theater."48 Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: "That he identified himself with one of its characters in a youthful letter, that he repeatedly quoted from the play (without attribution) in his mature correspondence, and that he used one of its lines in his Farewell Address are all documentable. That it offered a role model that was strikingly similar to the way in which Washington patterned his life is indicated by a careful reading of the play."49 Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote that "the powerful appeal of Addison's play Cato could scarcely have rested on the austere and self-denying character of Cato himself. The hero's forbidding sternness and his inexorable suicide on behalf of liberty represented behavior not easily emulated by the prosperous and civilized audiences of the eighteenth century. More attractive was young Juba, the Prince of Numidia [in northern Africa] and Cato's prospective son-in-law. His message was the Enlightenment's message." It also might be called George Washington's mantra:

A Roman soul is bent on higher views:
To civilize the rude unpolished world, And lay it under the restraint of laws;
To make Man mild, and sociable to Man;
To cultivate the wild licentious Savage
with wisdom, discipline, and liberal arts
Th' embellishments of life: virtues like these,
Make human nature shine, reform the soul
And break our fierce barbarians into men. 50


The character of Juba informed Washington's understanding of virtue. At the core of the play was a speech by Juba that summarized Washington's own position and his dedication to the pursuit of honor. Juba says:

Honour's a sacred tie, the law of kings,
The Noble mind's distinguishing perfection,
That aids and strengthens virtue where it meets her,
And imitates her actions, where she is not.


Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: "Juba's words, properly understood, provide the clue to understanding Washington....As it happens, Addison subsequently wrote a little essay in the Guardian, explaining what Juba meant. Addison begins by distinguishing between two kinds of motives to good actions: 'What some men are prompted to by conscience, duty, or religion, which are only different names for the same thing, others are prompted to by honour.'" Using Addison, McDonald added: "Honor, in these verses, is that principle of human action which operates out of desire for 'the esteem of wise and good men.' Virtue by contrast, is stoical virtue, 'which regulates itself by the sense of the honestum simply, or, in other words, by self-esteem.'"51 General Washington would write Benedict Arnold after an unsuccessful expedition to conquer Quebec: "It is not in the power of man to command success, but you have done more - you have deserved it." The sentiment came from Cato.

Washington acted on those sentiments. Biographer James Thomas Flexner wrote that young "Washington had been deeply impressed by Stoic philosophy as it was interpreted in the eighteenth-century England primarily through Addison's Cato. At first the conceptions seem to have lain fallow - Washington was anything but a Cato during the French and Indian War - but after his retirement, when he placed behind him the exotic ambition to be a professional in the British army, the Stoic tenets rose to occupy a central place in his mind. He accepted as guiding lights the 'Roman virtues' of lofty patriotism, love of freedom, unselfish service to the state, and a self-mastery that excluded all but the most magnanimous emotions."52 Later in the American Revolution, noted historian Pauline Maier, "Faced with challenges before which any sane man would fear failure, Washington consoled himself with the thought, drawn from Addison's 'Cato,' that victory as the world saw it was at best a fallible sign of human success. It was more important that a man embody an 'integrity & firmness' that deserved victory; indeed, to achieve so high a personal standard was to be successful."53

The impact of Addison's play was felt by other Americans during this period of history. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: "That most of the founding generation read [Cato] or saw it or both is unquestionable, and that it stuck in their memories is abundantly evident."54 In the books in which he detailed the progress of his program of the pursuit of virtue, Benjamin Franklin included a quote from Addison's Cato: "Here will I hold. If there's a power above us (And that there is, all nature cries aloud Thro' all her works), He must delight in virtue; And that which He delights in must be happy."55 Political scientist Waller R. Newell wrote "that a number of the most famous speeches from the American Revolution were closely inspired by the play. For example, Patrick Henry's ringing ultimatum, 'Give me liberty or give me death!' parallels a scene from Act II of Cato: 'It is not now time to talk of aught / but chains of conquest, liberty or death.' Even more strikingly, a line from Act IV, 'what a pity it is / that we can die but once to serve our country,' appears to anticipate Nathan Hale's immortal cry, 'I only regret I have but one life to give for my country.'" Washington intended Cato to inspire the Continental Army. Newell wrote that the American commander "Intended for his men to see their own impending battles as imitating the virtuous struggle of Cato, although presumably with a different outcome. But he may also have meant to impart to them that, even if they should lose, they must preserve their honor intact and never submit to British tyranny even at the cost of their lives."56

It was left to Washington to play the greatest role on the American stage. Washington not only appreciated a good role on stage. From early manhood, he understood how to play a role in real life. Historian Paul K. Longmore wrote: "Washington deliberately displayed himself as a citizen-soldier. He appeared daily at the sessions of Congress in uniform. That uniform, one of his own design, brought to mind his previous defense of colonial rights and his willingness to fight for them again....the outfit itself express the Anglo-American belief that civic virtue was most fully reflected when a freeman became a warrior."57 Washington changed in the course of the American Revolution, but his sense of the dramatic only deepened. Historian Walter A. McDougall wrote: "The fifty-seven-year-old Virginian gentleman...mustered his characteristic stage presence and placed it at the service of his new office and country. 'Characteristic' is the right word, because Washington knew any effective leader must be an actor sufficiently self-possessed not to step 'out of character."58

Washington biographer Paul Johnson wrote "It is true he was a bit of an actor. He liked to play the Old Man card when needed."59 Washington's mastery of theater and understatement was best illustrated on December 4, 1783 when he gave leave to his officers at Fraunces Tavern. Historian Robert E. Jones recalled Washington's language: "'With a heart full of love and gratitude, now I take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former have been glorious and honorable.' Then, 'I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will take me by the hand.' As it happened, Henry Knox stood next to Washington, who impetuously embraced him; after that, all had to be and were embraced. Nothing was said as the general went to the door and lifted his hand in silent farewell, nor was there any acclaim as he walked to the ferry slip. The silence spoke volumes."60 Washington was a master of the wordless gesture and stoic exterior. Fergus M. Bordewich observed: "Beneath his toga of public nobility, he was a creature of considerable ambiguity, cryptic by design. When a woman once casually remarked that she could read his joy in his face, he retorted, 'You are wrong! My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings."61 The Founders were the stuff of legend and they knew it - Washington far more than most. Historian Dixon Wecter wrote of Washington: "Two horses were killed under him, and four bullets tore through his coat. Folklore says the Indians decided he was under the care of the Great Spirit; certainly Washington began to believe in his guiding Providence, holding fast to that faith through the Revolution's darkest days. At this early date, too, the exaggerations of myth entered Washington's life; promptly he had to write home to deny 'a circumstantial acct. of my death and dying speech.' A glimmer of the theatre already played about him."62 Washington knew how to hold an audience. One young Philadelphian who saw General Washington enter Independence Hall, recalled: "He stood in all his civic dignity and moral grandeur, erect, serene, majestic. Profound stillness reigned. Not a word was heard, not a breath."63

Political scientist Gary L. Gregg II wrote that Washington "knew how to act a part, and he would learn how to act as president at the same time that he would virtually create the role. He molded much of what became our expectations for acting 'presidential.'"64 John Adams said of George Washington in 1811: "If he were not the greatest President, he was the best Actor of the Presidency we have ever had."65 Adams, son of Puritans, developed a keen appreciation of drama. He wrote a fellow Harvard student: "Upon common theaters, indeed, the applause of the audience is of more importance to the actors than their own approbation. But upon the stage of life, while conscience claps, let the world hiss? On the contrary if conscience disapproves, the loudest applauses of the world are of little value."66 Washington - from the moment in May 1775 when he showed up at the Second Continental Congress wearing his full military uniform - showed a keen sense of what John Adams called "dramatic exhibitions."67

The heroes of the Revolution benefitted from roles played by some distinctly less heroic types. The drama of the Revolution and the Early Republic was aided by some good demons - crazy George III, greedy General Benedict Arnold who betrayed the colonial army to the British, and the even greedier and more treacherous Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in duel before engaging in a conspiracy to spawn a secession of the country's western territory. When the spy drama masterminded by General Arnold was revealed in September 1799, General Washington acted decisively and dramatically to apprehend Arnold. "Remarkably clearheaded under fire, Washington was the only one at West Point that day to act calmly," wrote Willard Sterne Randall. "He immediately ordered Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry to go after Arnold. Lafayette came into the dressing room where Washington was sitting, head down, hand trembling with its load of treasonous papers, murmuring to Henry Knox. 'Arnold has betrayed me. Who can I trust now?'"68 It was a moment filled with dramatic possibilities - Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen and British spy John André played them to their own temporary advantage.

Historian David McCullough described Washington's meeting with British military emissary in the summer of 1776: "Washington had performed his role to perfection. It was not enough that a leader look the part; by Washington's rules, he must know how to act it with self-command and precision."69 Washington wasn't born to his role. But he definitely grew into it. "Some of the most incredible stories also happened to be true," wrote historian Joseph Ellis. "At Yorktown in 1781, he had insisted on standing atop a parapet for a full fifteen minutes during an artillery attack, bullets and shrapnel flying all about him, defying aides who tried to pull him down before he had properly surveyed the field of action."70 (Abraham Lincoln would do something similar facing Confederate troops from the ramparts at Washington's Fort Stevens in July 1864.)

An important patriotic metaphor for the Revolutionary era was Moses' escape with the Israelites from Egypt. Historian Barry Schwartz wrote: "Washington's role in this 'legend of providential intervention' was understood in terms of an important aspect of the prevailing covenant theology. Specifically, the story of the Israelites' exodus from the land of Egypt provided Americans with a model of their own experience with England, enabling them to transform a complicated geopolitical struggle into familiar religious terms. This paradigm, depicting America as a land promised and granted by God, had been deeply rooted in the collective consciousness from the very beginning of settlement." Schwartz noted: "When Washington emerged, he was the most plausible Moses. A few days after the British army evacuated Boston in March 1776, the Rev. Leonard, in a service attended by Washington, preached a sermon 'well adapted to the interesting [important} event of the day,' from Exodus XIV: 25: 'And He locked their chariot wheels, and caused them to drive heavily; and the Egyptians said, 'Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians...."71

Like Moses, Washington proved to be a master of the grand gesture. Washington also performed another classic role - that of the reluctant heroic leader modeled on the Roman farmer general who defended Rome and then returned to his farm. According to historian Joseph J. Ellis, "...the conviction that, once he had assumed the role of American Cincinnatus, he could not change the script."72 Biographer Willard Sterne Randall summarized his final move of the Revolutionary War. "He would go to Annapolis, Maryland, latest seat of the Continental Congress, and resign his commander in chief's commission, turning over all his power to the feeble Confederation government. A serious student of the theater, he would make a dramatic appearance that would ring down the curtain on his public life. Few people alive at the time were prepared for such a bold gesture."73 Washington arrived on Friday and offered to present his resignation in either writing or in person. The army commander asked whether Congress wanted him to present his resignation in person or in writing. On Tuesday, he did so in person. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote at Annapolis, "Washington, consummate actor that he was, made his most theatrical gesture, his most moral mark, and the results were monumental. The greatest act of his life, the one that made him internationally famous, was his resignation as commander in chief of the American forces."74 Indeed, Washington closed his Annapolis remarks on December 23, 1783 with a "dramatic" reference: "Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life."75 General Washington then delivered his commission to the president of Congress. The moment inspired two major paintings, including one by John Trumbull that resides in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

A less celebrated gesture took place earlier that year in Newburgh, New York, when unpaid American officers had grown rebellious. Washington was urged to lead a rebellion against the Revolution - or perhaps be pushed aside. Washington appeared before a group of officers to dampen their discontent. He did so with difficulty - and drama. Washington's remarks were unpersuasive, noted biographer James Thomas Flexner, until he chanced upon a remarkably effective stratagem. The mutinous group lost their nerve after Washington reached into his coat and said: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." Flexner wrote: "This homely and simple statement did what all Washington's arguments had failed to do. The hardened soldiers wept. Washington had saved the United States from tyranny and civil discord."76 Historian Garry Wills observed: "Skillfully, Washington took the call to mutiny as a great opportunity for the men to display, in dramatic terms, their public virtue. (The assembly hall in which he spoke had been nicknamed by the Army 'the Temple of Virtue')...77 As Thomas Jefferson was later to comment, "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.'"78 Historian Mackubin Owens wrote: "The military threat to the Republic dissolved before the moral authority and humility of their leader.79

Historian Paul K. Longmore summarized Washington's dramatic gifts: "In an age when public figures frequently struck dramatic poses, George Washington was a consummate actor. His skill is all the more notable because he was never a poseur. He never lapsed into the histrionic. Others, particularly those with greater oratorical gifts, might overplay their parts. He kept his performance understated and subtle. This was a major element of his appeal. It showed he had carefully read his audience."80 Thought a natural aristocrat, Washington learned to play for a broader audience worried about monarchs and dictators. He became Cato, not Caesar. He was Moses, not Pharaoh. "Great performance demand receptive audiences," wrote historian Pauline Maier, "and Americans of the mid-1770s desperately needed heroes to bind together their new nation and to serve as models of those virtues republican citizens should emulate." Washington played that role.81

Washington the writer saw the world in dramatic terms just as much as Washington the general and president did. Washington who generally eschewed military metaphors, liked dramatic ones. Indeed, Washington liked to use the language of the theater. In his letter to rebellious officers in March 1783, Washington had used language like "drop the curtain" and "manner in which that performance has been introduced."82 In April 1783, Washington wrote of the peace treaty concluding the Revolutionary War: "Nothing now remains but for the actors of this mighty Scene to preserve a perfect, unvarying consistency of character through the very last act; to close the Drama with applause; and to retire from the Military Theatre with the same approbation of Angells and men which have crowned all their vertuous Actions."83 Washington liked to use theatrical terms to describe his own behavior and dilemmas. "As the curtain of my political life is about to drop, I am, as you may suppose, a great deal hurried in the closing scenes of it," he wrote step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis at the end of his presidential term.84 Martha Washington wrote similar letter, stating that the winter "is now moderating and drawing to a close, with which the curtain will fall on our public life, and place us in a more tranquil theater."85

After he left the presidency, Washington encountered John Bernard, an English actor, at the scene of a carriage accident in Virginia. After they helped the accident's victims, Washington turned to Bernard and said: "Mr. Bernard, I believe?...I had the pleasure of seeing you perform last winter in Philadelphia." He then invited Bernard, who did not recognize the general, to accompany him home. Bernard did recognize Mount Vernon, however, and inquired if he had "the honor of addressing General Washington." Washington replied: "An odd sort of introduction, Mr. Bernard, but I am pleased to find you can play so active a part in private, and without a prompter."86

Those Founders like Abigail and John Adams who spent time in Europe during and after the Revolution, grew to love the theater and developed a new appreciation of drama. As First Lady, Abigail wrote that the theater "has been called the pulse of the people."87 John Adams didn't feel the public pulse and Adams didn't personally share the dramatic moments which his fellow Founders enjoyed. Adams chafed at not getting the roles or the adulation he though he deserved. The high point of Adam's political career was probably his defense before the Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776 that Thomas Jefferson had authored. Because the debate took place behind close doors, most Americans missed Adams' moment on the small stage of the Continental Congress. Historian Joseph T. Ellis noted: "Adams had actually led the debate in the Congress that produced its passage, as Jefferson sat silently and sullenly while the delegates revised his language. What was really just 'a theatrical side show' was now being enshrined in memory as the defining moment in the revolutionary drama. 'Jefferson ran away with the stage effect,' Adams lamented, 'and all the glory of it.'" Adams called it a "Coup de Theatre."88 In 1777, the energetic Massachusetts delegate went off to Europe where his efforts to raise funds for the Revolution and secure the peace went unheralded.

Overseas, Adams envied how Washington and Franklin captured the spotlight of the public stage during the Revolution. Adams himself was something of the founding nerd - jealous of his more accomplished and suave contemporaries like Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Franklin and Hamilton sought to play on a bigger stage and struggled until they found the one they wanted. Adams was not pleased by the development of American mythology and in 1790 wrote a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence: "The History of our Revolution will be one continued lye from one end to the other....The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod - and thenceforward these two conducted all the Policies, Negotiations, Legislatures, and War."89

It particularly annoyed John Adams that fellow diplomat Franklin was the focus of so many favorable stories in Europe - some true, some embellished. Adams was further annoyed that in Paris in the early 1780s, Franklin conformed himself to the French image of him as a plain western philosopher. Adams, who himself longed to be in the public spotlight, was jealous of those who were. Franklin was a star. He wrote of Franklin that "there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, a coachman or footman, a lady's chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen who was not familiar with [him], and who did not consider him a friend to human kind."90 Franklin biographer Carl Van Doren concluded that "probably no man before Franklin had ever had his likeness so widely current in so many forms." Van Doren wrote of "paintings and busts, miniatures, medallions, statuettes, drawings, and prints, endlessly reproduced, first on snuffboxes and rings and in time on watches, clocks, vases, dishes, handkerchiefs, and pocket-knives."91 Franklin found France to be a more receptive stage for his talents than England had been a decade earlier or than America would have been had Franklin remained in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War.

Franklin had early discovered the need to switch stages in order to maximize his impact on the world. At age 16, Franklin had abandoned his apprenticeship with his printer brother in Boston and never looked back as he moved south to Philadelphia. Similarly at age 17, Alexander Hamilton had the opportunity to leave the West Indies for Boston and then New York. Hamilton later wrote: "Men are generally too much attached to their native countries to leave it and dissolve all their connexions, unless they are driven to it by necessity."92 Franklin and Hamilton understood the necessity to perform in an appropriate venue. Historian Bernard Bailyn wrote that Franklin "had always been conscious of his image and its meaning, and had knowingly shaped it - not cynically, not to deceive, but spontaneously, to express his own view of himself as his roles developed and his activities expanded. Like most self-made men, he was aware of himself and knew the effect he was having - and never more so than when he moved, with increasing confidence, into the Parisian core of the enlightened world."93 Franklin's own autobiography assured that future generations would see the dramatic possibilities of his early life. Years abroad as an American diplomat in England in mid-century had prepared him for the more sophisticated stages on which to perform.

Like Washington, Franklin understood the need to look his part. Franklin biographer Stacy Schiff wrote: "The Franklin of 1776 took equal delight in resisting the tyranny of fashion, largely for practical reasons. About certain things he was fastidious, he had long preferred to shave himself rather than submit to the 'dull razors and the dirty fingers or bad breath of a slovenly barber.' His head was covered with an unsightly scruff, better concealed by a push fur cap, which Franklin pulled down low, to his eyebrows. As he wore the hat indoors, he may have meant for it to deflect his own scratching hands. And it was cold in Paris, not that any self-respecting Frenchman deigned to cover his hair. The effect of his sartorial heresy was by no means lost on Franklin, more radical in his dress than in his demeanor."94

Franklin certainly knew how to play as well as dress the part. When in 1778 Benjamin Franklin met the dying Voltaire in Paris, they first shook hands, but the crowd wanted a most symbolic gesture. As John Adams recorded the dramatic scene: "There was a general cry that M. Voltaire and M. Franklin should be introduced to each other. This was no satisfaction; there must be something more. Neither of our philosophers seemed to divine what was wished or expected; they however took each other by the hand. But this was not enough. The clamor continued until the explanation came out: il faul s'embrasser à française. The two aged actors upon this great theater of philosophy and frivolity then embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms and kissing each other's cheeks, and then the tumult subsided. And the cry immediately spread through the kingdom, and I suppose all over Europe: Qu'il es charmant de voir embrasser Solon e Sophocles."95

Franklin chronicler Stacy Schiff noted that "twenty years earlier he had expressed his conviction that life, like a play, should finish with a rousing last act. And so engaging in his best imitation of the modest everyman that he was not, on either count, he agreed to undertake the mission with a great sigh of insouciance. 'I am old and good for nothing; but, as the storekeepers say of their remnants of cloth, 'I am but a fag end, and you may have me for what you please,' he shrugged...." Schiff noted that Franklin's Paris "mission also conforms to the most genuine of American dramas, involving as it does three familiar elements: a borrowed identity, a getaway, and a swindle."96 Like Washington, Franklin was an American original.

Surely few of the Founders had a better sense of the dramatic moment than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was as pugnacious and egotistical as he was brilliant and prophetic. "Every day was a drama, lived at a higher pitch than that of his contemporaries," wrote historian Richard Norton Smith. "On joining Washington's revolutionary family, Hamilton quickly won the commander's affection, prompting the normally undemonstrative Washington to call his youthful aide, 'my boy.' Perhaps, never having had a real father, Hamilton did not know how to respond. Perhaps he feared the emotional consequences of dependence. Or perhaps his combative, quick-to-take offense nature was bound to lash out at the earliest opportunity. Whatever the reason, Hamilton deliberately provoked an incident by keeping the general waiting, then spurning his apology for the harsh words he had spoken." Hamilton wrote:

"For three years past I have felt no friendship for him and have professed none," Hamilton confided to one for whom he did have such feelings. 'The truth is, our dispositions are the opposites of each other, and the pride of my temper would not suffer me to profess what I did not feel."97 It was not a convincing performance by Hamilton and it left Washington perplexed. Biographer Forrest McDonald wrote: "Hamilton misjudged Washington: the general wanted him not merely out of self-interest but also because of sincere affection. Washington was genuinely sorry about the resignation, the more so because he realized that he was at fault."98 According to Hamilton biographer John C. Miller, "'although it ran much against Hamilton's grain to appear to adulate any man, he was ready to acclaim the Commander in Chief as a military commander of consummate skill and wisdom, and to run down his rivals as incompetents or as 'something much worse."99


Hamilton chafed in his role as an aide to the Revolutionary War's star and longed for his own star turn on stage. Biographer Forrest McDonald wrote: "Hamilton had never overcome his dislike for the personal dependency of the office of aide, and though he knew his work was important, he had long resented being deprived of the opportunity for advancement (as well as for glory) that service in the line would have given him. Beyond that, Washington was especially difficult to live with. Though the general's public demeanor was always circumspect, in private he could explode in fits of rage and was a 'most horrid swearer and blasphemer.'"100 After laboring for years as George Washington's aide de camp, Hamilton begged for front line duty at the conclusive siege of Yorktown in 1781. "We have it! We have it!" shouted Hamilton after Washington gave his approval to Hamilton leading the crucial charge on Redoubt Number Ten while French troops took a neighboring redoubt. Biographer Willard Sterne Randall, described how Hamilton, "not waiting for the axmen to clear a path through the barricade of pointed trees, led the charge, struggling through the jagged tangle. Leaping into the ditch under heavy fire, he led his swarming troopers up the rampart, then climbing onto the shoulders of a larger man, yelling, swinging his sword, he rode over the parapet, then jumped down."101 Hamilton understood the American Revolution's need for heroes. It was this dramatic moment that symbolized Hamilton's rise from poverty to power. "From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton's life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up," wrote Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow. "He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding. The saga of his metamorphosis from an anguished clerk on St. Croix to the reigning presence in George Washington's cabinet offers both a gripping personal story and a panoramic view of the formative years of the republic." Hamilton's rise to the top of American society and government must be measured against these tragic beginnings. Chernow cataloged the "disasters that had befallen [Hamilton and his brother] between 1765 and 1769; their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle, and grandmother had all died. James, sixteen, and Alexander, fourteen, were now left alone, largely friendless and penniless."102 Less than four decades later, Hamilton's life came to an end in an even more dramatic fashion - from a mortal wound in a duel with the vice president of the United States.

But the Founding drama required an ensemble cast. "What made Hamilton's rise in the world more than an episode, or a detail in a dramatic life, is that he had thought of ways to bring light to the talents of other men as well as himself: an interlocking system of law, finance, and work that would enable his countrymen to become conscious of their resources," wrote Hamilton biographer Richard Brookhiser.103 To the natural drama of his life, Hamilton added a distinctive dramatic flare. It was a dramatic flare that John Adams lacked and found so annoying in others. Washington in private was much more charming than his austere public image would suggest. Adams was not a social animal as Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin were. They all saw the power of a good story - even the shy, retiring James Madison was deemed a gifted story-teller in intimate company. One delegate to the Constitutional Convention observed of Benjamin Franklin that "he is no Speaker, nor does he seem to let politics engage his attention. He is, however, a most extraordinary Man, and tells a story in a style more engaging that anything I ever heard."104

John Adams' most enduring and convincing role may have been as friend, then antagonist, then friend of Thomas Jefferson. Historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote that the Founders "began posing for posterity, writing letters to us as much as to one another, especially toward the end of their respective careers. If they sometimes look like marble statues, that is how they wanted to look....If they sometimes behave like actors in a historical drama, that is often how they regarded themselves." Ellis noted that one of the most dramatic episodes of the Founding was the termination of the frigid silence between Adams and Jefferson in 1811. Ellis wrote "the reconciliation and ensuing correspondence permitted Adams to join Jefferson as the co-star of an artfully arranged final act in the revolutionary drama. Adams had spent most of his retirement years denouncing such contrivances as gross distortions of history. But he had also spent those same years marveling at the benefits that accrued to anyone willing to pose for posterity in the mythical mode."105 The final act was a show-stopper. It was a dramatic scenario that almost strained credibility when the two driving forces behind the Declaration of Independence died within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration on July 4, 1826.

It was a finale the two former presidents personally stage-managed through an act of sheer will power. Their medical conditions suggested that Adams and Jefferson should have been dead days or weeks earlier. But they lingered until they knew the anniversary date had been reached - semi-conscious that the other was still alive. Thomas Jefferson was astute enough to understand that others wished to be associated with this drama. Only weeks before his death Jefferson sent a letter of introduction to Adams via his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. "Like other young people, he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around him what he has learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen," wrote Jefferson to Adams.106 Drama requires conflict and the Founders provided that as well. Some of the most celebrated conflict occurred between Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson during the two administrations of George Washington. Their arguments required the Founding Father to become its Founding Mediator. Stewart Alsop wrote in The Center that "the drama of Washington lies more often in conflict than in ceremony. It is conflict that chiefly produces drama, and conflict is the stuff of which Washington is made - and always has been, back to the time when George Washington's two chief lieutenants become mortal enemies. When conflict concerns vital national issues, as in the case of Jefferson and Hamilton, the drama takes on grandeur."107

Less celebrated in history was the conflict between Jefferson and fellow Virginian John Marshall. Marshall was a lawyer who had been a stalwart defender of the administration and policies of General Washington and who was appointed as the nation's third chief justice in the closing days of John Adams' administration. As a young lawyer in Richmond, future Chief Justice Marshall went to the theater with future President James Monroe. After the Revolutionary War, Marshall's home was located near the Richmond Theater. When the theater burned to the ground on December 26, 1811, Chief Justice Marshall helped fight the conflagration. Fortunately, he was not in attendance at the performance of "Raymond and Agnes: the Travelers Benighted, or The Bleeding Nun." His invalid wife initially feared he was since he often went to the theater. Of those 600 who were in the audience, 72 perished in the fire - including Governor George W. Smith. Ill feelings about the disaster delayed construction of a replacement theater until 1819. Historian Cameron Addis noted that Virginia "Presbyterians capitalized on" the "fire in 1811 to accentuate the evils of the acting profession."108 According to Gordon S. Wood, critics saw the fire "as evidence of God's just punishment for the evils of play-going, defenders were always hard-pressed to justify the presence of the stage of their communities."109

Marshall and Monroe rose in the legal and political circles of Richmond after serving with courage and distinction as young Revolutionary War officers. Like his friend Patrick Henry, Marshall cultivated a popular image in contrast to the more patrician images of other Virginia Founders. Marshall biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote that: "Marshall developed an easy, unaffected style in which command seemed to come naturally. In later years, soldiers who had served with him at Valley Forge described the future chief justice as the most cheerful and optimistic man they knew. He never complained, and when his fellow officers showed their discouragement, Marshall did his utmost to cheer them up."110 Marshall had his own sense of the dramatic but was much more of a social being than Jefferson. Economic historian Charles Sellers wrote: "While Marshall patiently awaited a political climate in which the major constitutional issues could be decided correctly, his judicial restraint and what Jefferson called his 'lax, lounging manners' converted the Supreme Court into a tight-knit band of brothers who lived together 'with perfect harmony' in a Washington boarding house while in session and worked out their differences 'in gay and frank conversation,' often enabling Marshall to speak for a unanimous Court. A 'born diplomatist' and 'natural politician,' the Chief Justice was described as a delightful companion...fluent and facile in conversation...full of sly, waggish humor, genial and convivial..his patience almost inexhaustible, and his judgment cool, wary, and calculating."111 Marshal's sociable personage seemed designed to play against the more aloof and easily bruised personality of President Jefferson, who affected to be a man of the people but practiced a more aristocratic life style. .

As chief justice of the Supreme Court during the two terms of President Jefferson who detested him, Marshall managed several confrontations. The most dramatic moment came in the 1807 treason trial of Vice President Aaron Burr, over which Marshall presided and about which President Jefferson had effectively already decided the verdict beforehand. President Jefferson desperately wanted Burr convicted and improperly and publicly prejudged his guilt. Historian Jean Edward Smith wrote: "Marshall was disturbed by the Burr drama. Since the government could prosecute and probably convict Burr of mounting a military expedition against Spain, he could not understand why Jefferson persisted with the treason charge. Aside from the lack of clear and convincing proof, the chief justice was troubled by the implications of an action for treason....As a member of Congress, Marshall had fought his fellow Federalists over the alien and sedition acts. Now the equation was reversed, and it was the Republican administration that was taking advantage of its office to bring the coercive power of the state against its opponents."112

The dramatic confrontation among the three top officials of the American government took place on Jefferson's and Marshall's home turf in Richmond, Virginia. Historian Walter A. McDougall wrote: "Presiding judge John Marshall, prosecutor Edmund Randolph, and defense counsel Luther Martin, for various reasons, all hated Burr less than they hated Jefferson. A young journalist named Washington Irving was pleased to embellish their courtroom theatrics. Jefferson behaved no better: he issued pronunciamentos affirming Burr's guilt, leaked documents to the press, and offered co-conspirators immunity. But Marshall, who at one point in the trial broke bread with Martin and Burr, construed treason so narrowly the jury had no choice but to acquit. All Jefferson gained from the affair, besides a migraine, was a President's right to ignore a subpoena."113

Marshall's actions during the trial - including a subpoena of President Jefferson and attendance at a social event attended by Burr - have drawn the ire of historians who took the side of Jefferson and Madison against Marshall and who believed John Marshal played his judicial role improperly. The chief justice ruled that unless the prosecution could prove Burr's physical presence in the conspiracy, an acquittal must follow. The Burr trial completed the destruction of relations between Jefferson and Marshall. "Jefferson was incensed by the acquittal. Rather than acknowledge that the prosecution's case was shaky, the president blamed Marshall for interfering," wrote Smith.114 Marshall along with Burr were demonized by Jefferson. Nevertheless, Marshall's handling of the trial - and his marshaling of his fellow justices for Supreme Court decisions - effectively defused what might have been a damaging showdown with the Executive branch.

An appreciation of the dramatic and a love for the theater did not die out with the Founders. Indeed, it was an attribute that America's First and Sixteenth Presidents shared - and which subsequent generations have celebrated. Theater was more controversial in Washington's time than in Lincoln's. Abraham Lincoln's theater-going during war-time, however, did not escape without criticism. Even in death, his decision to attend a comedy, Our American Cousin, on Good Friday, 1865 was criticized. As biographer Carl Sandburg noted: "A large minority of Protestant ministers made reference to the President meeting death in a playhouse and directly or by inference spoke their regret. Some were full and explicit about this, not condemning, but reluctantly voicing what was in mind and heart...."115

Because they understood the power of drama in American politics, both Washington and Lincoln took advantage of the stage-managed dramas of others. In the imaginative hands of Richard Oglesby at the 1860 Republican State Convention, Lincoln's life was mythologized well before he became President. Oglesby employed Lincoln relative John Hanks in an elaborate theater piece that Washington's inventive biographer Parson Weems might have envied; Oglesby had Hanks march into the convention carrying a rail that the two men had supposedly split while working together in Illinois decades before. Thus began the legend of the "Railsplitter" candidate. Richard "Oglesby's initiative was brilliantly successful, laying the foundations for a mythic Lincoln that made much more of where he had begun life than where he had ended up," wrote Lincoln scholar Richard J. Carwardine.116 In the subsequent campaign Lincoln was celebrated by Republicans in what was effectively a mix of the up-from-the-bootstraps-hard-work story of Benjamin-Franklin and the cannot-tell-a-lie honesty of George Washington. Though Democrats in 1860 tried to ridicule these traits, they struck a chord with Americans, particularly northerners who could identify with these homespun qualities. Even Lincoln's rough-hewn physical image helped Americans identify with Lincoln in a way that would have been much harder for George Washington's contemporaries. Americans looked up to Washington. They identified with Lincoln.

As Presidents, Washington and Lincoln played their roles well - if not without considerable criticism. Washington not only played a character; he played a character whose central attribute was concerned with character. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: "Washington was able to succeed, partly because of a natural gravity and dignity combined with simplicity of tastes and manners, but more importantly because he was a consummate actor who had self-consciously been role-playing throughout his adult life....Washington differed from ordinary mortals by picking a progression of characters during his lifetime, each nobler and grander than the last, and by playing each so well that he ultimately transformed himself into a man of extrahuman virtue."117

Washington was the only American prepared to play the role the country needed. Historian Gordon S. Wood observed: "As the first president he faced circumstances that no other president has ever faced, and he was the only person in the country who could have dealt with them." Wood wrote: "Despite his outward modesty, Washington realized he was an extraordinary man, and he was not ashamed of it. He lived in an era when distinctions of social rank were still accepted. He took for granted the differences between him and more ordinary men. When he could not take those differences for granted, he cultivated them. He used his natural reticence to reinforce the image of a stern and forbidding classical hero. His aloofness was notorious, and he worked at it."118

Compared to Washington, Lincoln had the quicker common touch and the more expressive face. Washington's features were frozen in place by his dental problems leaving his face a mere mask. In contrast, most contemporaries agreed that Lincoln spoke eloquently and nonverbally with his face. Friend Henry Clay Whitney wrote: "His face was the most mobile I ever saw. I have seen him while betraying a silly and inane expression, also while animated with the most over-flowing spirit of fun and mischief; likewise, when feeling profound contempt, armed with the most cruelly quizzical expression, and, anon, in seasons of the visitation of that awful, mysterious melancholy, with a face as inexpressibly sad - much sadder than that of Dante or St. Francis of Assisi."119

Lincoln's role was different from Washington's but he too played it to perfection. Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote that Lincoln was "a practiced actor and an individual artist in the use of his face." Another biographer, James G. Randall noted that Lincoln "would have made a powerful tragic actor."120 According to Lincoln scholar David Mearns, "there is contemporary evidence to support a feeling that Mr. Lincoln was not himself completely unaware of his faculty for histrionics."121 Historian Harry Jaffa wrote: "Lincoln was a great actor, and he did not step out of character. Yet the lack of interest he displayed in the story of his own life was not affected. Great acting is also born of conviction, and Lincoln believed in the role he played. The difficulty lies in identifying that role. Lincoln was not uninterested in himself, as is shown by the extreme self-consciousness he sometimes displayed, nor assuredly did he undervalue himself. But Lincoln did not see in commonplace occurrences the record of the life which he was so conscious."122

Like Washington's resignation in 1783, Lincoln had his dramatic "farewell" moment. Lincoln friend Robert H. Browne recalled a meeting with President-elect Lincoln shortly before his own famous "farewell" from Springfield on February 11, 1861. Lincoln reviewed the growing secession crisis: "...rising and walking back and forward as he talked, with determination written in every feature, his eyes kindling with power and spirit, with his strong arm outstretched, now and then clenching the hand that was a wonder of strength, yet as tender as it was strong, he continued: 'The gravity and seriousness of the situation, to me, is overwhelming, and I feel that a burden such as few men have ever seen or borne is resting upon me. It seems greater to me than the task laid upon Washington, and I have no desire to compare myself with him; but the contest seems as definitely drawn, and the issues involved, in their relation to area, power, and people, are fully ten times as great. Alone I would be utterly powerless, but, sustained by the good people that love our country I will go forward in the plainest and most straightforward path of duty, with the conviction firmly fixed in my mind that God will save and perpetuate the Nation if we but do our duty. It is his Nation, and it is his cause we are contending for. The destinies of nations are in his hands as well as the lives of the little birds that warble in the tree; and he does with them whatsoever he will. The contest may be, and, if the slave-power develops all its strength, it will be, a desperate one. It saddens my heart beyond expression to think what it may be.'"123

Browne remembered: "The most salient feature of this parting meeting among these thirty men - many of them able leaders before and after - was his commanding presence and his great tenderness of heart, which appeared as delicate as a child's. He seemed to have correctly estimated and foreseen what was to come and what did come. His thoughtfulness seemed quick and alive for every one, so careful as to tell one who seemed to have forgotten that it was time for his train.124 President-elect Lincoln delivered his short but powerful farewell to Springfield residents from the back of a railroad car. Lincoln scholar Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote: "His farewell was the essence of emotional clarity. Frankly acknowledging his sadness, Lincoln neither lingered on maudlin details nor withdrew into sentimentality but stood anchored in his history, grasping the awful work of his future."125 According to Lincoln friend Norman Bateman, "His pale face was literally wet with tears as he re-entered the car, and the train rolled out of the city, which Abraham Lincoln was to enter no more - till, his great work finished, he would come back from the war, a victor and a conqueror, though with the seal of death upon his visage."126

Lincoln demonstrated a strong but understated sense of the dramatic - in contrast to the frequently overstated dramatics of many political contemporaries. He did not overtly place himself in a heroic context in the way that Generals George B. McClellan or Joseph Hooker did. Nor did he make grandiose and ornate public statements the way contemporary politicians like Charles Sumner or William H. Seward did. Psychobiographer Charles B. Strozier wrote: "During the war Lincoln became a kind of Shakespearean figure, a tragic and symbolic hero, as much by his actions as by his words. And, further, as [Roy P.] Basler suggests, Lincoln quite consciously created his image, shaping it as opportunity arose 'with his mind's eyes on the ultimate sene of the ultimate act.' That Lincoln also seemed like an Old Testament prophet by no means contradicts this point."127

Lincoln was clearly familiar with Addison's Cato - even if he referred to the play much less frequently than did Washington. One of the influential anthologies that Lincoln read as a teenager was the Columbian Orator, which included a section from the play. Historian François Furstenberg noted that for readers of the Columbian Orator, Cato's work offered a dichotomy: "slavery on one side; freedom (and possible death) on the other. Cato's virtuous liberty' joined republican and Protestant currents to associate virtue with liberty and slavery with an absence of virtue - and eternal damnation."128 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that in Lincoln's "Discoveries" speech of 1858, he used a quote from the Addison play and applied it to the Young America movement associated with rival Stephen A. Douglas: "Lincoln playfully remarked: 'As Plato had for the immortality of the soul, so Young America has "a pleasing hope - a fond desire - a longing after ter[r]itory." Young America also lusted after political office (in Douglas's case, the presidency): 'He has a great passion - a perfect rage - for the 'new'; particularly new men for office.'"129

Like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln had an affection for poetry. Lincoln especially loved Robert Burns and Shakespeare. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: "Through Scott's Lessons in Elocution, he first encountered selections from Shakespeare's plays, inspiring a love for the great dramatist's writings long before he ever saw a play."130 Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: "Rather the experience of these shakespearean heads of state, whose ambition had won them 'the hollow crown', spoke to the condition of a man whose restless desire for the highest office in the Union had delivered a fearful, bone-wearying duty. His particular fascination with Claudius's soliloquy, beginning 'O, my offence is rank', in which the murderous king struggles honestly and despairingly with his conscience, and which Lincoln considered 'one of the finest touches of nature in the world', may well have had to do with his own (at times crushing) sense of responsibility, if not guilt, for the onset of the war."131

"Perhaps no president turned to English poetry while in office with the frequency that Lincoln did," wrote Lincoln scholar Douglas Wilson. "He continued to recite his old favorites, such as 'O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?' or Holmes' 'The Last Leaf,' their melancholy and brooding concern for human mortality having been rendered even more apt by the somber circumstances of civil war. And he read poets such as Thomas Hood to invoke the lighter side. But he repeatedly returned to Shakespeare... 'Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read,' he wrote to the Shakespearian actor James Hackett, 'while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth.'"132 According to aide John Hay, Lincoln "read Shakespeare more than all other writers together."133 The impact on his own writing was clear. Lincoln scholar Fred Kaplan wrote of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech: "With his linguistic template derived from models like Henry V rallying his troops at Agincourt, Lincoln emulated the distinctive intensity of Shakespearean language. His italicized emphasis of particular words gives the passage the feel of soliloquy, the best of literary English from Shakespearean oration to Tennyson's 'Ulysses."134

Wilson noted: "There is abundant evidence that Lincoln sought out Shakespeare's plays during the most trying hours of his presidency as sources of strength and consolation. Don E. Fehrenbacher related this affinity for Shakespeare to Lincoln's keen sense of his role and ultimate responsibility in the carnage of the Civil War. 'To some indeterminable extent and in some intuitive way Lincoln seems to have assimilated the substance of the plays into his own experience and deepening sense of tragedy."135 President Lincoln played dramatic favorites; he preferred the soliloquy of the King Claudius over nephew Hamlet's soliloquy: "The former is merely a philosophical reflection on the question of life and death, without actual reference to a future judgment; while the latter is a solemn acknowledgment of inevitable punishment hereafter, for the infraction of divine law. Let any reflect on the moral tone of the two soliloquies, and there can be no mistaking the force and grandeur of the lesson taught by one, and the merely speculative consideration in the other, of an alternative for the ills that flesh is heir to," Lincoln wrote. The lines which captured Lincoln's attention were:

In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense's gilded hand may shove by justice;
And oft 'tis seen, the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.136


On his way back from the war front in Virginia less than a week before his death, President Lincoln entertained his shipmates reading from Shakespeare. A French guest on board wrote: "On Sunday, April 9th, we were proceeding up the Potomac. That whole day the conversation turned on literary subjects. Mr. Lincoln read aloud to us for several hours passages taken from Shakespeare. Most of the passages he selected were from Shakespeare, especially Macbeth. The lines after the murder of Duncan, when the new king falls a prey to moral torment, were dramatically dwelt on. Now and then he paused to expatiate on how exact a picture Shakespeare here gives of a murderer's mind when, the dark deed achieved, its perpetrator already envies his victim's calm sleep. He read the scene over twice."137

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who was aboard the steamer, recalled this reading foretold Mr. Lincoln's own fate: "Impressed by its beauty or by something else, he read it a second time. As the friends who then surrounded him listened to his reading, they little thought how, in a few days, what was said of the murdered Duncan would be said of him. Nothing can touch him further. He is saved from the trials that were gathering about him. He had fought the good fight of Emancipation. He had borne the brunt for war with embattled hosts against him, and had conquered. He had made the name of Republic a triumph and a joy in foreign lands."138

Richard Behn is research director of the Lehrman Institute.



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31 Frank Monaghan, John Jay, p. 219.
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60 Robert E. Jones, George Washington: Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Leader, p. 89.
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62 James Morton Smith, Washington: A Profile, p. 2.
63 Fergus M. Bordewich, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, p. 56.
64 Gary L. Gregg II and Matthew Spalding, Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition, p. 189 (Gary L. Gregg II, "The Symbolic Dimensions of the First Presidency").
65 Clinton Lawrence Rossiter, The American Presidency, p. 92.
66 David McCullough, John Adams, p. 38.
67 Joseph T. Elis, Founding Brothers, p. 217.
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86 Paul Boller Presidential Diversions, p. 11.
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129 Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 444.
130 Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 51.
131 Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 307.
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134 Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, p. 274
135 Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington, p. 10
136 Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, p. 348
137 Marquis de Chambrun, Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War, pp. 83-84.
138 Charles Sumner, Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln: The Promises of the Declaration of Independence, p. 44