A visit with the god of America.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
Brazen and gilt, this representation of the American Augustus is appropriately found at the N.Y. Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons on 23rd street in Mahattan. It adorns a library room, and honors a significant member of that centuried secret society.
The founder of our nation, as General Washington is known, enjoyed a lifestyle that could only be maintained by a subjugate army of slaves. I’d like to believe that he would be resistant to having his birthday celebrated with a crass and consumerist bacchanal, as he’d be embarrassed by it – but as I’m a non-slaver, it’s difficult for me to imagine the mindset of the “founding fathers” and walk a mile in their proverbial moccasins.
Titled Washington’s Birthday, the federal holiday was originally implemented by the United States Congress in 1880 for government offices in the District of Columbia (20 Stat. 277) and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices (23 Stat. 516). As the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen, the holiday was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. On 1 January 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places it between February 15 and 21, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” a misnomer, since it never lands on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. A draft of the Uniform Holidays Bill of 1968 would have renamed the holiday to Presidents’ Day to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, but this proposal failed in committee and the bill as voted on and signed into law on 28 June 1968, kept the name Washington’s Birthday.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
The General died badly, but everybody does that, and one such as myself doesn’t shed tears for a dead slave master even if they did accomplish a lot at their day jobs. Unfortunately, for a fellow so immersed in the “Enlightenment” and who was very much a rationalist and a logician – he thought the answer to illness was exsanguination (which was how his slaves were “cured” of ailments as well). His doctors bled him to death, but the holiday today is about his birth, not his death. This compound holiday (Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays are celebrated coterminously) was offered to the nation, as of 1968, as it was determined that there were too many Monday holidays in February and it was getting in the way of business. I’ve often thought we should celebrate a Monday holiday which specifically mentions the subjugation and forced generational labor of millions, but there you go.
On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his plantation on horseback, in snow, hail, and freezing rain—later that evening eating his supper without changing from his wet clothes.
That Friday he awoke with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse as the day progressed, yet still rode out in the heavy snow, marking trees on the estate that he wanted cut. Sometime around 3 a.m. that Saturday, he suddenly awoke with severe difficulty breathing and almost completely unable to speak or swallow. A firm believer in bloodletting, a standard medical practice of that era which he had used to treat various ailments of enslaved Africans on his plantation, he ordered estate overseer Albin Rawlins to remove half a pint of his blood.
A total of three physicians were sent for, including Washington’s personal physician Dr. James Craik along with Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick. Craik and Brown thought that Washington had what they diagnosed as “quinsey” or “quincy”, while Dick, the younger man, thought the condition was more serious or a “violent inflammation of the throat”. By the time the three physicians had finished their treatments and bloodletting of the President, there had been a massive volume of blood loss—half or more of his total blood content being removed over the course of just a few hours.
Recognizing that the bloodletting and other treatments were failing, Dr. Dick proposed performing an emergency tracheotomy, a procedure that few American physicians were familiar with at the time, as a last-ditch effort to save Washington’s life; but the other two doctors rejected this proposal.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
One of my little fantasies is the one where I magically pluck General Washington from the back of his horse and draw him into our future to witness that which has been wrought in his name. He gets introduced to the imperial majesty of present day America in this fugue of mine, and witnesses not just the modern military might but the relative luxury (compared to his era) and civil treatment that even the basest members of our society can and do expect. I suspect that the General would be shocked at the size and reach of a standing military which operates out of 900 military bases in 150 countries. I don’t think he’d be surprised that the slaves had been freed and offered citizenship, nor the lousy treatment they’d received. More shocking to him would be the relative importance and status of France and almighty England, which were the Americas of their time.
Of course, that was before an American God came along who did the work of the Great Architect of the Universe.
Washington was initiated into Freemasonry in 1752. He had a high regard for the Masonic Order and often praised it, but he seldom attended lodge meetings. He was attracted by the movement’s dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason and fraternalism; the American lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective that made the European lodges so controversial. In 1777, a convention of Virginia lodges recommended Washington to be the Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of Virginia; however, Washington declined, due to his necessity to lead the Continental Army at a critical stage, and because he had never been installed as Master or Warden of a lodge, he did not consider it Masonically legal to serve as Grand Master. In 1788, Washington, with his personal consent, was named Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22.
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