On Feb. 22, his birthday, we honor a great American artist.
You don’t think of George Washington as an artist? His art was theater. His supreme performance was the public role of “George Washington.”
That performance was studied from the lines of a character who once trod the boards: The hero of Joseph Addison’s classical tragedy “Cato.”
Nobody acts “Cato” anymore. It was written in 1712, in the doldrums of English theater. It has little human warmth. It reads today as a string of speeches about stoic virtues and about sacrificing for your just cause, whether you triumph in the end or die for it or both.
Being a play, “Cato” necessarily has a plot so Addison can string his maxims like crisp laundry on a line. But those virtuous maxims were just what the London audience loved about it in Queen Anne’s day. The British were weary of their own political bickering. The play rose above it.
“Cato” crossed the Atlantic, and it inspired in young George Washington “what it meant to be liberal and virtuous, what it meant to be a stoical classical hero” (writes historian Gordon Wood).
The rebel Americans, half a century later, embraced “Cato” for its republicanism and love of liberty. To regret that you have but one life to give for your country? That’s from “Cato.” Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” echoes “Cato.”
The Americans stood then on the verge of a great choice and a chance, and Addison’s play taught the joy of virtuous victory. Probably its best-known line was:
“’Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.”
Cato the Younger himself, a patriotic liberty-loving Roman, was a hero to the Founders. They mostly had been classical scholars and they had read from an early age the stories of Cato’s life and death.
George Washington was a country gentleman; he had no Latin. It was Washington, among the minds in Philadelphia, who had Cato from the stage, not from Plutarch.
Washington had seen Addison’s “Cato” often in the Virginia theaters (he preferred a seat in the pit, in spite of his social class). Virginia and Maryland seem to have been the two colonies that never banned theaters as immoral and a public nuisance.
There probably was a “Cato” performance at Valley Forge. It either was given by Washington for his junior officers or was performed by them for him. As with much from Valley Forge, the story has gaps.
If “Cato” was staged there, it was staged in spite of Congress. Congress had prohibited public officials from attending plays.
Five years later, at Newburgh in 1783, Continental army officers, infuriated by a Congress too weak to pay the soldiers, spoke of using the military to force the states to pay their shares.
At this hinge-point of the Revolution, Washington called the officers together and quelled the talk with a speech that is a little masterpiece of diplomatic leadership.
In it he appeals to their noble virtues and the cause they had shared in battle. It all hews closely to the moral tone of “Cato” in its words and phrases.
He sealed it with his own nice touch of stagecraft. Before he began speaking to the officers from his notes, the general paused 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.”
He could have torn up the speech. He had them by their honor and respect for him earned on fields from Brooklyn to Brandywine. There wasn’t a dry eye.
But he did read it to them.
If you flip through Washington’s collected writings and read only his letters on farming and horses, you’ll meet George Washington the man. He’s at home there, in those two topics, especially horses. His speaks freely; his prose lightens.
Gilbert Stuart discovered that about him while painting Washington’s portrait for the third time. He was trying to coax a relaxed and animated expression from the great man, who never liked sitting still for painters. A passing horse of fine form caught Washington’s eye briefly; Stuart noticed, shifted the talk to horses, and got the look he sought.
Washington’s political correspondence, by contrast, is composed in the confident, restrained authoritative tone he used in his Cato-inspired role.
Alexander Hamilton was on Washington’s staff at Valley Forge; perhaps there he saw “Cato” with him. Hamilton had the knack for knowing what the general would want done. He probably wasn’t much on farming, though.
But they were close, those two. Hamilton was said to be almost as a son to him, though some disagree. I hear there’s a stage play about it.
“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.