More Than Meets the Eye

TOPICS: George Washington, Historiography, Student’s Perspective

by Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
January 24, 2017

The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” The timeless story opens on an old beggar woman seeking shelter from the storm at a prince’s castle. The prince, though noble and handsome, is also cruel and unkind. He dismisses the ugly old beggar woman, unaware she is a powerful sorceress. The sorceress transforms into her beautiful self and warns the prince not to be deceived by outer appearance. To instill this lesson, she turns the prince into a horrific beast, placing a curse upon his castle that can only be broken when he finds someone who will reciprocate his love despite his beastly appearance. Following a period of prolonged self-reflection and caring for others, the prince finally breaks the curse. This tale has engaged audiences across the world, blossoming into a beloved romance and children’s bedtime story. But the theatricality of “Beauty and the Beast” might divert the audience from its moral.

While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.

“As general Washington was making a short tour, after his labors in the revolution had brought peace to our land, a singular occurrence happened. He was one day expected at a certain place, and the landlady was very busy in preparing dinner for him. At length a man having the appearance of a farmer entered and desired some dinner; the lady replied, she could not supply him, because she had been making great preparations for general Washington. “Well,” replied he, “I can be content with almost any thing;” on which she place before him some ordinary cold food. After having risen from the table, and being ready to resume his journey, he said, “now if you would see general Washington, you must be in haste; I am he, and must be on my way.”1

The people of Winchester appealing to George Washington, a print of an engraving by George R. Hall (1856).3

Although this anecdote is likely nothing more than a fabricated tale, it exemplifies how nineteenth-century writers used historical figures to impress moral advice. While the General’s unveiling did not inflict a curse as the sorceress’s did, the two stories impart a similar lesson of compassion without judgment. However, the opportunity for imparting moral advice does not stop there. Assigning George Washington the role of delivering the story’s moral intensifies its didactic impact; leveraging well-known virtues of a beloved figure creates an engaging story with multiple lessons.

While the General in this story could have chosen to announce his title at the start of the encounter and thus demand immediate service, he waited, choosing instead to ask kindly for food. Such a demonstration of restraint follows the 45th of 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, which states:

Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in public or in Private; presently, or at Some other time in what terms to do it & in reproving Show no Sign of Cholar but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.2

In other words, be mindful of timing and manner in criticizing someone. By choosing General George Washington—who meticulously copied these rules himself as a young boy—as an example of this rule of civility, the author amplified the benefits of the moral lesson. It was no secret that George Washington was not as well educated as his contemporaries. Insecure about his limited educational background, Washington paid careful attention to social courtesies as a result. His reputation thus provided an exceptional opportunity for introducing this moral tale as well as presenting an alternative for proper behavior: Washington’s kind restraint provides a contrast to the woman’s hasty preconceptions.

This anecdote utilizes another dimension of General Washington’s character as well. Born to a lower social stratum, George Washington learned a course of modesty and discipline. Indeed, the story explicitly depicts his appearance as a simple farmer. His approachability intensifies the influence of his teaching by providing a standard for all citizens, regardless of class, to uphold.

Personally, I find the anecdote amusing and effective. It compels me to reassess my view of others and readjust my actions accordingly. Fairy tales can help shape children into considerate adults, but adults occasionally need reminders that aim to improve their outlooks as well. And George Washington appeals to everyone.


1. “[Washington],” Alexandria Gazette, October 12, 1819, 2, Link to source.

2. “George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” Foundations Magazine,

3. Though this appeal occurred during the French and Indian War, the town response demonstrates Washington’s popularity when traveling in uniform. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “The people of Winchester appealing to Washington.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 24, 2017.