Last year I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of American History. I don’t think I could have appreciated it in my youth as I have as an adult, having studied history for the joy and lessons found therein rather than under the compulsion of a teacher. One of my fondest encounters was that of George Washington’s uniform on display. Seeing that dark blue coat, the gold epaulets and buttons, the cream colored waistcoat and breeches, only inches away, brought about a realness to American history of which there are few such occasions.
Washington Loved Theatre“Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the world, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute Freedom and Independency; they are from this period to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” - George Washington, Circular to the States, June 1783
Of the many well-known caricatures of Washington, his love of theatre is not one of them. Yet, his detailed diaries are some of the few records we have of theatre in colonial America. As a young man he would view up to four shows a week, and Thomas Jefferson recounts that he and Washington saw the same show eight times. Though the Continental Congress outlawed theatrical performances during the Revolutionary War, during the long winters at Valley Forge, Washington had his men act out his favorite plays, usually those of Shakespeare, for entertainment. His passion for theatrics would carry over into his role as General in the War for Independence.
Becoming an Inspirational Figure“I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” - George Washington 1775
Washington knew the value of “dressing the part” or playing the role, even the role for which he felt he was not ready, and believed that acting out the part was essential to becoming the man who could fulfill it. In the many letters to his wife and friends during the war, he confessed his feeling of inadequacy and desire to not let his feelings be made known to those who trusted in his command. Thus, for General Washington, his decadent uniform and posture were key elements in portraying an image which he would later fill.
Washington was also known to use quotes from his favorite plays to inspire his men and close encouraging correspondence with friends. I suppose it would be like using a quote from Braveheart to rally soldiers in our modern age, the difference being the historic and sometimes religious ties which plays in his day had at their core.
It’s hard to imagine the man George Washington, such a colossal figure of history and brilliant thinker in his own right, quoting plays to stir up some courage in his men. It’s equally hard to believe he donned his uniform with the hopes of looking the part for which he did not feel ready to play. He understood, however, that dressing the part not only instills confidence in others, but in the wearer as well.
When we dress the part we are reminding ourselves of the man we want to be and choose to hold ourselves accountable to the man we see in the mirror.