The Many Faces of George Washington

By Sherry Wood


In 1932, on the bicentennial celebration of President George Washington’s birth, many of the members of St. John’s Lodge of the Masons in Portsmouth donned knee breeches, frock coats, powdered wigs and tricorns to take a group photo.

To Sandra Rux, who is curating a Portsmouth Athenaeum exhibit opening Feb. 16 called “The Many Faces of George Washington,” it is yet another manifestation of the mythology surrounding the first president of the United States.

The cult of George Washington began even before his death at 67 in 1799, not quite three years after he completed his second term and left the White House for his beloved Mount Vernon in Virginia.

On the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, he was known as fearless. According to, the commander-in-chief of the Colonial armies had two horses shot out from under him and four bullet holes shot through his coat.

Washington visited Portsmouth during a tour of the East Coast in the fall of 1789, six months after starting his first term. He arrived in the city on Saturday, Oct. 31, reviewing troops at the State House (then called the Town House) on Market Square.

Two days later, he briefly addressed the citizens of Portsmouth. Rux said he spoke before a very small group at Brewster’s tavern (now the site of the Treadwell Jenness House on Pleasant Street).

“He thanks the citizens for their kind welcome and congratulations on his election to the presidency,” Rux said. “He expresses fear that he is not worthy of their devotion, but pledges ‘unremitting attention to the duties of my office.’”

On Tuesday, he danced late into the night at a ball thrown in his honor. The exhibit will have a shoe worn by Sally Brewster when she rode with Washington to the ball, on loan from the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Rux said visitors to the free exhibit in the Athenaeum’s Randall Gallery can see a fragment of his coffin (“he got a new one in the 19th century and pieces of the old were sold”) and a piece of the Cambridge Elm under which Washington took command of the American Army in 1775 (“pieces of it were sold and given away when the tree died”). Also featured will be a manuscript with Washington’s signature.

“Visitors can also learn about Ona Judge, an enslaved woman of the Washington family, who ran away and ended up in Portsmouth,” Rux said. “She married and lived in Greenland. While folks in Portsmouth did know she was nearby, they denied all knowledge in letters to agents of Washington.”

Rux said as she assembled the exhibit with the Athenaeum’s Elizabeth Aykroyd, Joan Graf and Barbara Adams, she was struck by how much she didn’t know about the man known as the father of our country.

“In a time of very partisan politics we thought it would be nice to remember a brief time without partisanship and to make use of the Portsmouth Athenaeum collection of George Washington prints,” Rux said.

This free exhibit runs through April 13 and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m., in the Randall Gallery at 9 Market Square, Portsmouth, NH.

This article originally appeared on on Feb. 10, 2019.

Exhibit At A Glance

Friday, Feb. 15, 2019

5 – 8 p.m.

Free Opening Reception in Randall Gallery

Third Floor, Portsmouth Athenaeum

Saturday, Apr. 13, 2019

Last day for the exhibit. Closes at 4 p.m.