When he takes to the front of the room for his talk at the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute, Phill Greenwalt introduces himself as the co-founder of Emerging Revolutionary War and as the acting chief of interpretation at Morristown National Historic Site. “If I say anything you like, I’m that guy,” he says, pointing to his Morristown title; then he points to his ERW title. “If I mess up, I’m that guy,” he chuckles.
It’s Phill’s self-proclaimed tongue-in-cheek mission to see how many times he can work Morristown into any conversation while he’s at the Teacher Institute. “Washington spent more time in Morristown during the war than anywhere. It’s where America survived,” Phill points out. “I say that within a stone’s throw of Valley Forge, which says it was the place where the war was won.”
Phill is here to talk about rethinking George Washington. Teachers can explore what their students think they know versus what they don’t know. Washington offers a great study in mythology versus reality.
“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness,” Washington said in his first annual address to Congress in January 1789.
Phill starts by outlining four stages of Washington’s life, which each offer discreet teaching opportunities:
- Young George
- General George
- President George
The life of young Washington offers themes of loss, extended family relationships, becoming a gentleman, career ambitions, education. The men in his family typically die before they’re 50. “Fortunately, behind every good man is a strong woman,” Phill says, pointing to the sometimes-turbulent relationship between Washington and his mother. “They have the same personality,” which included stubbornness and purposefulness.
“Washington nearly joined the navy,” Phill offers as an example, “but was steered away from it by his mother, who didn’t want him to live a middling existence.” Washington was also turned down for marriage twice; one of those women told him it was because his prospects didn’t seem bright enough.
Washington only had a fifth-grade education, but he had intelligence and wisdom earned through experience. Coupled with his determination and his physical stature, Washington set himself on a path for success.
“He was between 6’2” and 6’4”, depending on what convenience store he’s leaving,” Phill joked. “That made him six-to-eight inches taller than the average person.”
He also had luck on his side. “‘It’s better to be lucky than good’ could have been his motto from his French & Indian War experience,” Phill said. After all, Washington ended up inadvertently touching off a fight at Fort Necessity that escalated into the French & Indian War.
Phill points out that, throughout his military career, Washington keeps learning from his mistakes. “He’s not perfect,” Phill says. “He tries a lot of different things. He fails at a lot of them, but he keeps trying.” Washington ends up losing more battles than he wins, yet he finds himself on the winning side of two major conflicts.
“Washington claimed he didn’t want the military role, but he showed up at the Continental Congress wearing his military uniform,” Phill points out. “Actions speak louder than words.”
His leadership style was “to keep himself above the fray.” When a cabal worked against him behind the scenes during the Valley Forge winter, for instance, Washington refused to take them on. After the war, when a group of angry officers threatened to march the army on the capital, Washington deflated the situation with a calming influence.
“When he stepped to the podium to address the group,” Phill said, “he stopped and put on his glasses. He said, ‘Not only have I gone gray in the service of my country, I’ve also gone blind.’ That alone right there put an end to it.”
Phill says Washington also knew how to get the best out of the people he was with. “Washington knows he’s not going to be the smartest guy in the room, but he knows enough to surround himself with good people,” he says. “First-rate people surround themselves with other first-rate people. Second-rate people surround themselves with third-rate people.”
He urges the teachers in the room to take the time with their students to understand how Washington went “from man to marble.” Exploring the processes of remembrance and deification—“peeling back the marble,” he calls it—can offer some great learning opportunities.
“Washington’s surviving papers show us what he wanted us to see,” Phill says. “He was thinking ahead.” Washington maintained a very careful public persona, even going so far as to tell people to burn private correspondence. His wife, Martha, burned all their letters, believing that what was said between a husband and wife should stay between them.
And while much speculation has surrounded the Washingtons’ relationship, Phill again reminds us that actions speak louder than words. “She travels some of the worst roads in some of the worst weather to be with George during quiet times in the war, during winter encampments,” Phill says. “So there had to be something there between them for her to go through all that.”
Even if you think you know Washington, new research continues to shed more light on him. He ended with some news about recent work at George Washington Birthplace, an NPS site where Phill once worked. “New research suggests he was not born at the site where the Birthplace has said it was for years,” Phill admits. “The building we’ve thought was the birthplace might’ve been a pantry or large outdoor storage building of some sort. The actual birthplace is somewhere else on the site!”