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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 of activity have disclosed a somewhat more “real” figure. Freeman brought out the ambitious, selfrighteous side of Washington when he was a young Virginian on the make. Along with historians such as Bernhard Knollenberg,2 too, Freeman was prepared to argue that if General Washington hardly “slept away” his “time in the field” (Paine’s slur), he did now and then make tactical mistakes. Flexner has added to our understanding of Washington’s physical deterioration in later years, and of his conviction that in reaching the “grand climacteric” (the age of sixty-three) he had thereby grown irreversibly old. Other historians have emphasized the extent to which Washington as president became alienated from the Jeffersonian and Madisonian viewpoint, and in that respect was less impartial than he liked to believe.

Nevertheless, this scholarly toil has served to amplify rather than overturn the conventional view of Washington as the virtuous republican. Despite two hundred years of a scrutiny closer than any endured by candidates hauled before Senate confirmation committees, no one has unearthed evidence of misconduct, sexual or otherwise, on Washington’s part. His life seems to have been genuinely blameless, at least by ordinary standards. His attainments, if a little embellished subsequently, were already there, waiting for the eulogists.

The conclusion must be, I think, that so far as orthodox biography is concerned, little or nothing is left to say. Whatever is findable, and of any weight, has already been found and assessed. Alas, John R. Alden’s George Washington: A Biography illustrates the point. He is a veteran scholar, the author of a dozen surveys and biographies focused upon the American Revolution. Among them is a life of Charles Lee, the interestingly eccentric soldier who criticized General Washington for being over-endowed with “that rascally virtue prudence.” So one might have expected a touch of astringency from Professor Alden. What we get is a competent but prudential narrative, in a decorous prose containing words like “amidst” and “exacerbated.” A worthy enough book, it is still basically the mixture as before.

If straight Washington biography is played out, other options remain open, especially in psychological and cultural history. This is the approach attempted by Garry Wills in Cincinnatus, an account of the creation of the legendary or monumental George Washington, the man of virtue who yet resisted the temptations of monarchical authority, and of Washington’s own awareness of and even involvement in the process.

Mr. Wills is a prolific writer with a gift for nimbly dogmatic analysis. In the past decade he has shifted from witty, caustic discussions of the modern American polity (Nixon Agonistes, The Kennedy Imprisonment) to appreciative explorations of political theory during the Revolutionary era. Thus Inventing America (1978) argued that Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, far from emphasizing Lockean individualism, drew its inspiration from the societal concerns of Scottish commonsense philosophy. Explaining America (1981) was an analysis of the Federalist papers, in which he ascribed to Hamilton and Madison a remarkably exulted “classical zeal for Republican virtue.” Two further volumes are announced: Building America (on the 1787 Constitution) and Judging America (on the Supreme Court). Cincinnatus is presumably a byproduct of this large enterprise, which seems to be aiming both at handsome commemoration of the Founding Fathers and at quirky revisionism of the received view. Among his books is a study of that master of paradox, G.K. Chesterton. In common with Chesterton, Wills shows a certain relish for reversals of received ideas.

His own earlier work could be considered ideologically “conservative.” But while several of his American peers have persisted in conservatism or else moved rightward (a modulation evident, for instance, in the span of Norman Podhoretz’s editorship of Commentary), Wills could be deemed to have moved in the other direction. In somewhat conservative fashion, Nixon Agonistes (1970) treated “liberalism” as America’s (and Nixon’s) harmful, or at best useless, central credo. Inventing America, however, laid stress upon the fraternal and egalitarian rather than the libertarian tone of the Revolutionary era. Kenneth S. Lynn said in criticism that the book sought to “supply the history of the Republic with as pink a dawn as possible” (Wills might counter that dawns often are pink). Cincinnatus too has been accused, in the neoconservative New Criterion (April 1984), of muddling up Enlightenment pieties with advocacy of present-day anti-administration isolationism in an act of “dubious ideological salesmanship.”

Wills is also a perplexing writer for academic historians to assess. Sprightly yet magisterial in tone, he is admired for his aphoristic originality. But he has been charged now and then with appropriating sound ideas from others (such as the late Douglass Adair), or with promoting unsound ideas of his own (for example, by overstating the supposed influence of David Hume upon James Madison).

In history as in other fields, scholarship both craves and suspects innovation. We are afraid of being taken in and also of being left out. Historians resort to the vocabulary (indebted to, building upon) of cooperative and cumulative industry. Yet reputations are usually made by refuting established interpretations: on the contrary, we assert, the very opposite is true. Hence, no doubt, the considerable regard for Garry Wills, undercut by complaints that he is “too clever,” covers too much ground, and is somehow lacking in judgment. This mixed response is probably also tinged with envy, since he writes with more weight than the average journalist and more verve than the average professor.

To me, Cincinnatus is as good as anything that Wills has yet published. While boldly speculative, it is more substantially grounded than the Inventing and Building volumes. Much of the evidence he has collected in his account of the creation of the Washington legend is visual, and abundantly so. The book’s eighty-five illustrations provide an intriguing anthology of official and vernacular symbols, taken from the European and American paintings and sculpture in Washington’s era. They include presentations of Washington by American artists—Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, Horatio Greenough, etc., down to Grant Wood’s affectionately mocking version of the cherry-tree fable—and by European sculptors such as Houdon, Canova, Ceracchi, and Causici. He includes contrasting renderings of the down-to-earth portraits of other Americans, notably Benjamin Franklin, and of the imperial treatment of contemporary European rulers, especially Napoleon, and many neoclassical works, above all those of Jacques-Louis David.

With some digressions, Wills’s account in Cincinnatus revolves around the main resignations in Washington’s career, of 1783 and 1796. In 1783 the commander in chief sent a circular letter to all the state governors as a solemn “last legacy,” took leave of his officers, and returned his commission to the Continental Congress. In 1796 President Washington issued the farewell address that he had initially prepared to make in 1792. To Wills, these were deliberate public gestures, as significant as the repertoire of iconographic references in the art of the period. “Classical” in their specific allusions to the heroic dramas of Greece and Rome, they were particularly American in their emphasis on the modesty of Cincinnatus or the civic integrity of Cato, as opposed to the aggrandizing and deifying bombast of Bonapartist France.

Wills does not view Washington’s deliberate abnegations as unlikeable contrivances, as alleged by Paine or some of the debunkers of the twentieth century. Wills’s Washington is a genuine hero of his time, not a prototypical business executive (as caricatured by Marvin Kitman in George Washington’s Expense Account, 1970); or a PR manipulator; or, at the other extreme, a mere manikin easily manipulated by crafty subordinates such as Alexander Hamilton. Cincinnatus deals with the hero-making process, showing also Washington’s own canny awareness that in being fixed for posterity by authors and artists he could himself, by staging his departures from public life and his hesitations in returning to it, influence or even determine that process.

Wills recognizes that the motives and methods of other image-makers were mixed, and that painters, sculptors, and medallionists simply borrowed their poses and symbols from art’s vast international treasury. Poets and clerics resorted to the familiar iconography, invoking Cincinnatus, Junius Brutus, or Epaminondas, or associating Washington with the Old Testament’s lawgiver-liberator Moses. Since this image-making was vastly stimulated by his death, Washington was of course not in on the whole story. Indeed Wills’s Washington might not have approved the homiletic gush of Parson Weems.

Washington is above all a person of authentic, albeit representatively American, excellence, imbued with a loftily austere sense of public service. Only in this last regard, according to Wills, did Washington act as if he were an autocrat. Washington felt obliged to distance himself from people, such as the Lafayette family, where personal and public considerations might collide. Otherwise, to Wills, he was in truth emblematic of a “morality of power” totally different from that of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Wills illustrates this point in a brilliant analysis of Houdon’s standing figure of Washington—an elegant yet slightly nonchalant or informal gentleman who carries a civilian’s walking stick and has used the symbolic Roman fasces as a sort of clothes-rack on which to hang his discarded sword and military cloak. The contrast with Canova’s statue of Napoleon as the God Mars (1811), or with Ingres’s outrageously flattering painting Portrait of Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806), is undeniable. It is made explicit in Byron’s Ode to Napoleon, with which the book closes:

Where may the wearied eye repose When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows, Nor despicable state?
Yes—one—the first—the last—the best:
The Cincinnatus of the West Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeath’d the name of Washington
To make men blush there was but one.

The task of the iconographers, Wills suggests, was to depict George Washington as a leader but not a monarch; a hero virtually without flaw, yet a human being, “godlike” but not a god; a warrior but also a citizen soldier; a planter but not a nabob; a paterfamilias although he had no children of his own. Long afterward, Woodrow Wilson was to remark that those who entered federal government either grow or swell. Paine, Bache, Callender, the opposition press of the 1790s, were worried that despite his virtues Washington was coldly egotistical and therefore likely to swell rather than grow. Charles Brockden Brown may have been alarmed as well as amused by the posthumous inflation of the great man, evinced in the chorus of obituary tributes.

Yet on the whole, Wills contends, the Washington legend was kept within modest limits. Barralet’s print of the apotheosis of the nation’s leader (1800) is loaded with symbols—Father Time lifting Washington out of his tomb in company with an angel; a mourning Indian; a liberty cap; an American eagle; a group of matrons sadly hugging their infants. A bundle of fasces can also be made out; Washington’s insignia as president of the Franco-American Society of the Cincinnati dangles over the edge of the sarcophagus. Nevertheless, the scene is almost homely in comparison with the apotheoses devised by artists for Napoleon. Washington’s eagle, Wills observes, is not in flight but on the ground. It stands, literally, “for the republic,” not as “the tutelary bird of an individual genius, like Napoleon’s eagle” depicted by Ingres.

In other words, the image-makers respected the wishes of the American people and the republican pieties manifested in the actions of Washington himself. Bereavement, gratitude, admiration were deemed appropriate: sycophancy, or adulation bordering on blasphemy, was not. Mr. Wills remarks that in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, an engraver reproduced Barralet’s print, simply substituting the head of Honest Abe for that of the Pater Patriae—a dodge that would have looked absurd if the original scene had not been so democratically domestic in mood. Hence, it is suggested, the gradual disappearance of the comparison with Moses. Classical allusions could be accommodated within the vocabulary of civic humanism: the superhuman and super-natural connotations of Moses were too hard to take.

In the same way, Wills plausibly maintains, the more high-flown literary tributes to Washington, such as those of the college-educated Connecticut Wits, were lodged far less securely in the nation’s imagination than were the slapdash fancies of Parson Weems. Weems, it is suggested, has been misread (or not read at all) by genteel literati. They have failed to grasp that a large part of Weems’s intention, in the successive editions of his widely sold little Life of George Washington, was not to idolize the hero but to make him more down-to-earth: to portray him successively as a child capable of mischief, an athletic youth, a farmer eager to get more land and to marry well. Weems was also given to ebullient, extravagant metaphors and to knockabout humor: a stylistic recklessness anticipating that of the popular author George Lippard, who in the mid-nineteenth century churned out several books on Washington and the Revolutionary era.

On these matters Cincinnatus is admirable. The publishers claim in their blurb that “Garry Wills has made George Washington interesting again.” Wills is perhaps not quite such an innovator as they allege. One reason for the excellence of his interpretation is that he has been able to build upon a good deal of recent lively speculative work.

Weems, for example, has enjoyed a recent revival. The locus of this interest seems peculiar at first glance. It lies with Abraham Lincoln, whose face supplanted Washington’s in the modified apotheosis print, and who in American popularity polls has for some time pushed Washington from first to second place. George B. Forgie’s Patricide in the House Divided (1979), for instance, ponders the avowal by Lincoln that Weems’s Washington stirred him when he was a youth. 3 Forgie believes that the reading of Weems helped to stimulate Lincoln’s appetite for fame, in a “post-heroic” age when the feats of the Washington era seemed dismayingly perfect and final. In psychohistorical speculation, Washington may thus be perceived as a father whose achievements may have stirred complex emotions (paralysis, emulation, outright rejection) among later generations.

By this indirect route Weems has been made respectable, or at least has been treated seriously. Washington too has been recast, as a presence whose very size and fixity may have profoundly affected his successors.

Weems crops up in other books that explore the folklore and iconography of emergent nationalism.4 According to Jay Fliegelman in “George Washington and the Reconstituted Family,” a chapter in his Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1775–1800 (1982), Washington was in fact mythologized by Weems and other writers, not as a remote authority figure, but as an “antipatriarchal” symbol of cultural as well as political and military rebellion against older metaphors of paternal dominance. In short, if George Washington has ceased to generate excitement on the plane of externalized biography, the legendary or monumental aspects of the man still seem capable of stirring up debate—a debate from which Garry Wills has been able to benefit.

Psychological or iconographic interpretations may of course not all be mutually compatible; the gap between Forgie and Fliegelman is one indication. And they can arouse strong dislike among historians with different tastes. How “sound” is Cincinnatus? An objective answer cannot be provided. Here are a few comments, in no particular order of importance:

Weems may be receiving a little more attention nowadays than he deserves. Lincoln is on record in only one brief allusion to Weems’s Washington. The cherry-tree story did get into the public domain. But other bits of Weemsiana won no place in the dozens of books, plays, and articles about George Washington published in the century after his death. Weems was something of a rogue and a hack. He concocted biographies of other American heroes, including Penn and Franklin, and in his sales pitches seemed perfectly ready to promote them as figures of equivalent status to Washington. Still, however we rate Weems, his due was overdue. He is a mythologist whose own life has entered mythology. As a traveling book-salesman Weems had his finger upon the public purse, and so arguably upon its pulse.

Republicanism. This notion is now greatly in vogue. It is offered as a comprehensive explanation for American behavior during the eighteenth century, and for at least the first half or two-thirds of the next century. Perhaps it is being overused. Iconographically, it is expressed in liberty poles, Phrygian bonnets, and the like, and more broadly in a wide range of classical references. But as Jean Starobinski concedes in 1789: The Emblems of Reason,5 the classical revival in art forms antedates the Revolutionary era and is not necessarily expressive of libertarian developments.

In any case the trend is international. Much of the iconography Mr. Wills examines emerges from the academies of Europe. Other types of behavior, including an instinct for gestures of farewell, are not inherently American. Here and there, scholars in the United States tend to hunt for and perhaps exaggerate the “exceptionalism” of evidence they take to be uniquely American.

One might ask whether the rhetoric and imagery of classical republicanism are as sharply differentiated between America and Europe as in Cincinnatus. If the contrast is between Washington and Napoleon, then obviously yes. But between, say, Washington and George III, or Admiral Nelson, or Lafayette? Was republicanism of much avail as a force for reason in Revolutionary France? Does it of itself explain the private as well as the public aspirations of Washington and other American contemporaries, including Jefferson, who did not feel bound to serve the state indefinitely? Were the eulogies to Washington slightly embarrassing to a fair number of his countrymen, even just after his death? What happened to his “image” in the next decade?

The list of queries begins to blur, and to stretch beyond the declared limits of Garry Wills’s book. I think it is a fine book, and essentially correct in its arguments. Washington was both a real and a symbolic hero. Americans did seek to define the nature of his heroism. Their definitions were related to the people and the continent in which Washington lived. His abnegations or resignations were a world away from les adieux de Fontainebleau, and the difference is full of meanings.

  1. 1

    George Washington: A Biography, vols. 1–6 by Douglas S. Freeman, vol. 7 by J.A. Carroll and M.W. Ashworth (Scribner’s, 1948–1957); George Washington, by James Thomas Flexner (Little, Brown, 4 vols., 1965–1972); The Writings of George Washington, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (US Government Printing Office, 39 vols., 1931–1944); The Diaries of George Washington, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (University Press of Virginia, 6 vols., 1976–1979); The Papers of George Washington, edited by William W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (University Press of Virginia, 2 vols. thus far, 1983).

  2. 2

    Bernhard Knollenberg, Washington and the Revolution (Macmillan, 1940).

  3. 3

    See David Brion Davis, “Uncle Oedipus and Ante Bellum,” The New York Review, October 25, 1979.

  4. 4

    There are a chapter on “The Mythologizing of George Washington” in Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Americans: The National Experience (Random House, 1965) and one on Washington as “The Flawless American” in Lawrence J. Friedman’s Inventors of the Promised Land (Knopf, 1975). Images of Washington are analyzed in Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (Knopf, 1978). They are the theme of recent museum exhibits, commemorated in useful catalogs—notably George Washington: An American Icon (1982), by Wendy C. Wick, for the National Portrait Gallery, and George Washington: A Figure Upon the Stage (1982), by Margaret B. Klapthor and Howard A. Morrison for the National Museum of American History.

  5. 5

    Translated by Barbara Bray (University Press of Virginia, 1982).

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