Have you ever wanted to see George Washington’s dentures? Well you can find them displayed within the halls of his estate, Mount Vernon. They’re a bizarre amalgamation of metal, bone, and ivory, placed under glass and spotlights as if they were members of the crown jewels.
The question arises, why such care for this macabre bit of history? Given the amount of time and resources devoted to the set of teeth, you’d think they were some holy relic.
In a way, they are.
America has a certain tendency to take its adoration to religious levels. We’ve promoted George Washington practically to sainthood. We view Abraham Lincoln as a martyr.
Just think about it. We scour the nation for artifacts relating to Washington and Lincoln. Countless frescoes feature them bathed in sunlight, crowned with laurel and ascending to godhood. We’ve scattered hundreds of markers across the states, marking any places they may have boarded, battled, bathed. We display their relics, immortalize them in iconography, make pilgrimages to their sites.
Just what about these two so inspires our veneration? Yes, George Washington was remarkably adept in both war and politics. So was James Monroe, yet he receives no apotheosis. Abraham Lincoln isn’t the only President to have been assassinated, but no other receives the same commemoration as he.
The two weren’t above reproach, either. George Washington owned hundreds of slaves. Abraham Lincoln presided over the bloodiest war in American history.
Perhaps the answer to our question lies in what makes a saint. The world, throughout times both ancient and modern, has been filled with virtuous people. However, that fact isn’t reflected in there being millions of saints. Therefore, virtue must be merely a part of the process.
The remainder is something that distinguishes the saints from all other people, namely, their circumstances. Virtue is only half of what makes a saint. Misfortune and persecution provide the rest.
What makes an American saint isn’t the individual, nor even the circumstances that surround him, but rather the individual’s response to those circumstances. Washington wasn’t perfect, but he was able to shape up a ramshackle army and navigate a whole new government. Lincoln had his flaws, but he was able to prevent the breakup of the nation and end slavery.
The whole lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln aren’t the things memorialized throughout this country. Rather, their best qualities, such as Washington’s tenacity and Lincoln’s valor, are what we laud across the land. We don’t remember heroes for daily decency, but rather for brief, shining moments of greatness.
Maybe that’s why we’ve come to respect these two presidents to this extreme. Each generation of Americans likes to think of itself as an extraordinary group in extraordinary times. After all, tumultuous surroundings are what bring the opportunity to do something incredible. Who doesn’t want to become a second George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? When the time is right, just maybe, we too could rise to such great heights.
[Image Credit: USCapitol via Wikimedia Commons]