Gorgeous George

George Washington: A Biography

by John R. Alden
Louisiana State University Press, 326 pp., $19.95

Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment

by Garry Wills
Doubleday, 272 pp., $18.95

Two more books about George Washington. Two more books? It is tempting to argue that the Washington theme is exhausted. Indeed, even his more candid or cranky contemporaries suggested as much. In a truculent “Open Letter” of 1796, Tom Paine had denounced the President as a cold, hypocritical figure, extolled far beyond his merits. And shortly after Washington’s death at the end of 1799, the young editor-novelist Charles Brockden Brown parodied the current mass of funeral tributes in an anonymous article. Washington orators must obviously, he said, summon up “all the sages, and soldiers, and statesmen of history.” Fabius, Newton, Hannibal, Socrates, Cincinnatus, Cicero must be assembled to “cast their garlands at the feet” of Washington’s statue, and acknowledge his primacy.

As early as 1800, it would seem, the lines educated assessment would take were already set. Within a few years the popular biographers, of whom Mason Locke (“Parson”) Weems is the best-known, were adding their anecdotes to the testimony of the gentry culture. Whatever the approach, there was general agreement that in the entire record of human history almost no one was comparable to George Washington in stead-fast, modest integrity. The famously great leaders—Caesar, Cromwell, Marlborough, Napoleon—had been corrupted by power. Perhaps only the semi-legendary Roman farmer-warrior Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was fit to set beside America’s otherwise uniquely virtuous warrior-statesman-planter, George Washington of Mount Vernon. But when all the changes had been rung on this theme, what was left? Paine had claimed that there was little to start with. Brown noted the formulaic repetitions in the hundreds of obituary sermons and speeches. A generation later, Emerson observed (with Washington in mind) that “every hero becomes a bore at last.”

The details of Washington’s life did offer something of a challenge, especially for historians in the late nineteenth century proud of the new “scientific” credentials of their profession. Searching for what they called the “real” or “true” George Washington, they scorned the cherry-tree folklore of Weems. Weems, said one, was “destitute of historical sense, training, or morals, ready to take the slenderest fact and work it up…for the market until it became almost as impossible to reduce it to its original dimensions as…for the fisherman to get the Afrit back into his jar.”

Substantial biographies later appeared, including an unfinished three-volume effort by Rupert Hughes (1926–1930) which only got as far as 1781. All such accounts were superseded by Douglas Southall Freeman’s immense biography. Freeman’s labors were supplemented by James T. Flexner’s four-volume biography, published between 1965 and 1972. Washington’s own Writings were gathered in a thirty-nine-volume set and his Diaries in another edition. The Diaries have lately reappeared in a new scholarly edition. The old Writings will be replaced by a fresh large-scale enterprise, the Washington Papers, directed by W.W. Abbot and likely to run to seventy volumes.1 Add the scores of articles and monographs relating to George Washington and it can be seen that the rule of diminishing returns may be in effect.

True, these decades…

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