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In Moby Dick, beginning of chapter 10, I read about the resemblance of Queequeg's head to George Washington's:

It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington's head, as seen in the popular busts of him.

Now to this European, George Washington is better known as first President of the United States of America than as general. So why is he called General here?

I searched for Washington's bust on Google Images and I found he is not always represented in a uniform.

So these are the options I could think of:

  • It's just me: Washington is more famous as general than as president
  • It's Europe vs USA: for Americans, Washington is more famous as general than as president
  • It's now vs then: in 1850s, Washington used to be more famous as general than as president
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    Interesting question. When is Moby Dick set, again? ...if I, or people I knew personally, had fought in the Revolutionary War, then I might refer to him as a General. Could that be the case, here? – Shokhet Jul 18 '17 at 20:31
  • @Shokhet are you saying that option 3 is correct? Because I thought that the novel was set at the time of its writing – Mario Trucco Jul 18 '17 at 21:00
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    I'm not saying anything, Mario, I'm just thinking out loud. If it's set in the 1850's, it's a bit of a stretch to say that people still knew people who fought with George Washington. (By the way, as an American, I can tell you that option 2 is probably not it. Most people here definitely think of Washington primarily as the first president.) – Shokhet Jul 18 '17 at 21:03
  • @Shokhet Thank you.. after reading your first comment I worried that it was maybe set earlier and had to check – Mario Trucco Jul 18 '17 at 21:06
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Checking the Google Ngrams viewer, from 1770 to 1900:

Google Ngram frequency graph

We can see that "General Washington" was by far the most common appellation during the years Moby Dick was written and published.

I am not an American, so I can only guess as to why this is:

  • His role of the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army is far more important and influential than his role of the first President of the US. After all, if it weren't for the military role, the presidential role wouldn't even have happened.
  • And, of course, there was only ever one Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, but many Presidents of the US since.
  • Further, he was a military man for much of his early life.

As removed as we are from those times, and given the global importance that the office of the President of the US has gained, for us it seems that Washington as President is more important than Washington as General. But that is not necessarily the case during those decades immediately after the US gained independence when the War of Independence would have been the most significant event of the preceding hundred years or more.

Also note that if you look up some of the books that Google used for this result, you'll see titles like:

  • As a note, for the Google Ngrams "General Washington" is still more common than "President Washington" (1990 to 2008) – Mario Trucco Jul 19 '17 at 6:54
  • Yep, and a plain "George Washington" has taken on "General Washington"'s place. – muru Jul 19 '17 at 6:57
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    This isn't an answer to the question and I'm disappointed to see it's gotten so much upvotes. Obviously, it's nice to see data that shows that George Washington was most commonly referred to as General Washington. But the question asks why Washington was referred to as General Washington, and to that question this answer only offers speculation ("I am not an American, so I can only guess as to why this is"). – user111 Jul 19 '17 at 13:27
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    @Hamlet as you're a moderator, I'm now disappointed that you dismiss that speculation's status as an answer. – muru Jul 19 '17 at 13:32
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I am quite far removed from my studies of early American History, so I am sure there are many nuances to the politics that I am forgetting, but one of the major reasons that Washington was considered a good candidate for president was his prior experience leading the Continental Army (see here). Because this experience was so important to his contemporaries, it makes sense that they would continue to use his military rank when referring to him.

And as a previous answer explained, it is clear that in Melville's time, the use of General Washington is more common than President Washington.

However, all this aside, if we try to understand why Melville chooses this for Moby Dick, I think there may be some value in thinking about the different connotations behind someone who leads as a general vs a president.

A general is the ultimate decision-maker. Although s/he might (should) consider input from others in the military, in some ways the military really is a dictatorship; if a general gives an order, his troops are to carry it out, no questions asked.

Conversely, a President is a politician, and is Constitutionally designed to be the opposite of a dictator, instead listening to input coming from a variety of constituents before making a final decision.

It could be that Melville's choice of the word General instead of President was a deliberate indication that dictators are the only type of leaders respected within Ahab's world.

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