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Scholars on Washington: Workaholic, Formal, Fond of Women and Horses

September 16, 1989

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ Scholars agreed that the former president of the United States was no intellectual, was fond of horses and had few close personal friendships. They denied that he was a figurehead ″spun around by the whiz kids in his Cabinet.″

Sound like a seminar on Ronald Reagan? Guess again.

The panel discussion was a highlight of a three-day conference, winding up here Saturday, on ″George Washington and the American Presidency.″ The event was sponsored by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which runs Washington’s restored home at nearby Mount Vernon, and the American Studies Center.

The conference was held as part of the observance of the bicentennial of Washington’s inauguration as president in 1789.

The picture of the nation’s first president that emerges is of a workaholic, a demanding taskmaster, chillingly formal in his public demeanor, something of a nitpicker, and a charmer with women.

″I am not sure that I would really call George Washington a warm person,″ Christine Meadows, curator of Mount Vernon, said during Friday’s panel.

″He had a great sense of the respect that was due to rank and position and a strong feeling that if one had attained that position, then he was due a great deal of respect,″ Ms. Meadows said. ″And he conducted himself that way in public.″

She said he had ″few close relationships″ although family members said he could be warm and informal when out of the public eye.

John Stagg, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and editor in chief of ″The Papers of James Madison,″ said Washington and his close associates had forged their relationships in the politics of colonial Virginia and ″they were much more pragmatic, more political, than they would be purely personal.″

″Everything went in his daily life according to clockwork,″ Ms. Meadows said. ″Nobody entered his study without his personal invitation. In that sense he was, perhaps with (Alexander) Hamilton, sharing an apparent workaholism.

″You are almost in awe of his capacity for detail. He must have driven people crazy who worked for him. He was a nitpicker to some extent.″

Dan Jordan, executive director of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s restored mansion near Charlottesville, Va., said Washington freely acknowledged his own lack of a formal education.

″Some historians have made a great deal of this and suggested that he was spun around by the whiz kids in his Cabinet and that they led him by the hand for their own purposes against his own interest,″ Jordan said. ″I don’t think that argument holds water.″

Scholars have concluded that Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison would all score in the genius range if they could take an I.Q. test, the Jefferson specialist said.

″In that company, Washington might appear a bit slow, but who wouldn’t?″ he asked.

He cited Jefferson’s own judgment of the first president: ″His mind was great and powerful, without being of the first order.″

The panelists did not press any comparisons with Reagan, but critics have also pictured the immediate past president as a man of ordinary intelligence who served as a front man for policies worked out by his subordinates.

Reagan’s supporters defend him against this criticism, and Jordan defended Washington, saying, ″There isn’t any question from the record and from what he accomplished and achieved that he was plenty sharp judgmentally.″ Jordan argued that judgment and courage are more important in a president than intellectual brilliance anyway.

Stephen Schechter, a political scientist who is chairman of the New York Bicentennial Commission, was asked about Washington’s fondness for horses, a trait that Reagan shares. ″He had his life divided into parts, public service and home,″ Schechter said. ″I think Washington truly held nothing more valuable than his return home and that return had much that went along with it involving agriculture and horses and the like.″

Asked whether Washington warmed up in feminine company, Ms. Meadows replied, ″He enjoyed women and they found him enormously interesting. He seemed to be more at ease with women.″

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