November 28, 2007

Were Our Forefathers Sissies?

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I recently visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia. It was a very large place, with many rooms and vast gardens and rolling hills. It is kept up by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, as I recall, and they have done a good job keeping it pretty. It even had a “Pioneer Farmer Site” that has a recreation of the actual “treading barn.”
I was pretty impressed by all this until a guided tour of his mansion took me to old Washington’s bedroom. His bed was so small, maybe five feet by two feet. I had seen many grand images of George Washington triumphantly crossing the Delaware, killing three Brits with one swipe of his mighty sword. Or standing tall as he righteously chopped down his father’s hideous cherry tree. Or maybe that’s not how the story goes. At any rate, all my fanciful dreams of my gargantuan and invincible forbearers were shattered that day. Gazing upon this tiny bed, I realized how small old Washington must have been. What kind of puny legacy is that? My tour guide claimed George was over six feet tall, but that could not have been the case. I was standing right there next to his bed.
I was a little bit disappointed to have my illusions about Washington shattered and it made me wonder how trustworthy our impressions about our forefathers really are. How can we really believe those elaborate portraits from the days before photography? If I were an important general or the President, I might have paid off my portrayers to add a couple inches in the legs. Or perhaps some bulkier biceps.
And that elaborate posing. In the olden days you were required to be surrounded by various knick-knacks and hunting dogs in order to appear sophisticated and elegant. But those knick-knacks and hunting dogs could have just been added in after the fact. We’ll never know whose things they actually were. It is all subject to that painter’s imagination.
And for that matter, how trustworthy is the photographic evidence? I have seen all kinds of trick photography that makes a thing appear larger or smaller or entirely different from whatever it actually is. Like that game where you get a very zoomed-in piece of a photograph and you have to try to guess what the object is as fast as you can as the image is slowly zoomed out and revealed. That orange blobby pattern could be anything!
You can do all sorts of tricks like this with cameras. If you take a picture of someone from the proper angle, you can make them look pretty big and impressive regardless of their size. Though I have seen those photographs of Abraham Lincoln having discussions with Ulysses S. Grant and the various advisors and generals during the Civil War and they are convincing. Honest Abe towers above the men around him. He looks like a giant and his substantial top hat only adds to the effect.
We will never know what our earliest forefathers really looked like. And perhaps that is not actually important. It is not George Washington’s fault that he lived before the days of knowing how calcium builds strong bones and which B vitamins do what things. Look at how far we’ve come. Vitamin-Shoppe! A whole store devoted to vitamins. Imagine that.
It’s true, scientific advances have generally made the world’s population larger and able to live longer lives. I bet you if we pitted the second half of American presidents chronologically versus the first half in a wrestling match, that second half of presidents would pin the first half, no problem. They were larger and healthier. You try taking down William Howard Taft. But I wonder if we haven’t lost something by always trying to make the human race bigger and stronger.
There are many advantages to being small and nimble. You can fit into cramped spaces to retrieve lost or hidden objects. Due to a lower center of gravity, you are less likely to lose your balance in a stiff breeze.
There are two sides to that coin and I think I am maybe being a bit rash in longing to picture George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as behemoths, carving out rivers and canyons with a mere drag of the ax like Paul Bunyan did. The image that gets passed down of our forefathers is so uncertain. Perhaps I’ll never know the truth of the matter, but I suppose that’s okay.