First Scenes for an Imaginary Film

  • Scene 1: Mount Vernon, Virgina. George Washington on a bucking horse. Just like we’ve seen many times before in Westerns, he’s trying to break it, tame it for riding. Washington always broke his own horses, and he’s breaking another one now. He’s in his shirt, without vest, waistcoat, or powdered wig.
  • Scene 2: Washington at a big breakfast of ham and other meats, freshly baked goods, butter, jellies, etc. He’s sitting and fully dressed. At 6'2" he dwarfs his wife Martha, who is also fully dressed, and is sitting at the table with him. A black domestic servant (actually a slave) adds more food to an already full table.
  • Scene 3: Washington is on his white horse (Nelson, not the freshly broken one). The best horseman in America, perhaps of his age, he is with William Lee, his trusted black slave-valet, who is on a second horse. Billy is nearly is as good a horseman as Washington. They have an easy manner between them, but the relationship is really that of master/slave. Martha bids goodbye to her husband without a word.
  • Scene 4: A tracking shot of Washington riding away from his Mount Vernon mansion. As the camera follows him onto the open road, the whole of his slave enterprise is on view with some one hundred slave quarters stacked aside the fields. Music rises but does not resolve.
  • Scene 5: Washington enters Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) is in the background. He's not tired, but refreshed from the five days’ journey. Along with other prominent colonists, he is there for the Second Continental Congress. His age is 43.

George Washington was the fixed point in the American Revolution. Or perhaps he was the stone that skipped across the age without sinking. He led the battle that initiated the French and Indian War, he commanded the Continental Army during the American Revolution, he was the President of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and he was the first President of the United States (1789 - 97). King George III said of him — if he retires from the military and returns to his private life after the war, he will be the greatest man in the world.

Washington did exactly that.

Washington was fully involved with what made America America. He was one of the richest men in the thirteen colonies (though not as rich as Boston merchant John Hancock), he grew tobacco, he speculated in land, he held more than 300 slaves at his death (whom he freed), he fought Indians, and finally, he wanted political freedom for himself and for his countrymen.

No one who met Washington ever walked away unimpressed. He was a physical being who was an aggressive risk-taker as well as a man of rectitude — but also, for the ladies, he was wonderful dancer, a popular partner.

JDN | 26-Apr-2010

Since the heady moment when he married Martha Custis in 1759, combining their estates into one of the preeminent holdings in northern Virginia, everything Washington touched had turned to brass. He had failed repeatedly to grow profitable tobacco crops. In London his leaf had acquired an unshakable reputation for mediocrity. Meanwhile the expenses of maintaining a great planter’s lifestyle, while keeping up a slave labor force and several plantations, had proved unrelenting. His own debtors — former comrades-in-arms who unhesitatingly touched him for loans, neighbors with whom he ran accounts, tenants who owed him rent — were slow to pay, and sometimes never did; yet he was too tightly bound by the expectations of gentlemanly behavior to refuse a loan when asked, or to press a debtor insistently when payment fell due. By 1763 Washington found himself deep in debt, doubting that he would ever extricate himself by growing tobacco, and casting about to find some way out of his predicament.

Fred Anderson
Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 - 1766 (2000)