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The Genuine Article

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington

by Richard Brookhiser
Free Press, 230 pp., $25.00

Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment

by Garry Wills
Doubleday, 272 pp., (out of print)

George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol

by Barry Schwartz
Free Press, 250 pp., $24.95

It is hard for anyone who discovers George Washington not to write about him, perhaps because he is so hard to discover and such a surprise when you do. That featureless face peering harmlessly from the dollar bill and a thousand other places becomes hardly noticeable, protected like the purloined letter by its meaningless visibility. To discover him, moreover, requires persevering beyond the bare record of his achievements, for what did he actually do, when you come right down to it?

He was the general who won American independence on the field of battle. Yes, but he lost most of the battles at which he commanded. He was not present (not yet even appointed) at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. For years after 1776 he avoided any serious engagement of the enemy whatever. He had virtually nothing to do with the northern campaign in which Horatio Gates forced the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, the real turning point of the war. He commanded at the siege of Yorktown in 1781, which effectively ended the war, but French forces outnumbered American at Yorktown, and it was only the presence of the French Navy that made the siege possible at all.

Washington presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and is often credited with its success. But he had no known part in drafting its provisions. He did not even speak about any of them, except to support, on the last day of the Convention, a motion to change the ratio of representation in Congress from one for forty thousand persons to one for thirty thousand. In the struggle over ratification, though he had signed the document and privately praised it, he conspicuously refrained from any public statement of support, not even attending Virginia’s crucial ratifying convention.

As the first president (and the only one ever to win a unanimous electoral vote) he launched the new government. But his policies provoked the first opposition, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who had originally guided him. His own most prominent action as president was to take the field again at the head of an army, to suppress a rebellion in which no rebel force made an appearance to get itself suppressed. He is credited with some important state papers, but most of them, including the famous “Farewell Address,” were drafted by others (Madison wrote both his first message to Congress and the Congressional answer to it).

The record does not look so great. Yet people at the time obviously thought it did. Throughout his long career Washington earned the adulation not merely of ordinary people but of the other luminaries whom we now hail as “founding fathers.” Benjamin Franklin, his only senior in age among them and the man most responsible for securing the indispensable French assistance, had no hesitation in honoring Washington’s use of it. He wrote him from France in 1780, at a time when the American cause seemed to be faltering under Washington’s direction, that “the old generals of this martial country…join in giving you the character of one of the greatest captains of the age.” Franklin evidently shared their opinion and in his will bequeathed him “my fine crabtree walking stick, with a gold head curiously wrought in the form of the cap of liberty…. If it were a sceptre, he has merited it and would become it.”1

Immediately after the war Jefferson and Madison collaborated to have the French sculptor Houdon prepare a marble statue of Washington, commissioned by the Virginia legislature and still gracing the capitol at Richmond. Madison’s proposed caption for it proclaimed Washington as “an immortal example of true glory.” Before the statue was finished, Madison withdrew this in favor of a Latin inscription favored by Jefferson, which Jefferson translated as, “Behold, Reader, the form of George Washington. For his worth ask History: that will tell it, when this stone shall have yielded to the decays of time.” Fifteen years after Washington’s death, despite Jefferson’s leadership of the opposition to his presidential policies, Jefferson could write to a friend that Washington was “in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man,” who belonged “in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.”2 John Marshall, the great Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, devoted five volumes to a biographical eulogy.

All these people knew Washington personally. Some knew him as well as he let anyone know him. And they were all, by most standards, his intellectual superiors. Indeed they have themselves had few equals in that respect among their successors in American public life. If they were so awed by Washington, they must have found something in him that is not immediately apparent in the public record. Two hundred years later it can still be found, and the search can be rewarding if arduous. Those who make their way through the thirty-seven volumes of his Writings, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick, are likely to be frustrated by the absence of the incoming letters, without which the answers to them are often incomprehensible (and a large proportion of the letters are answers: Washington did not initiate many exchanges). Fortunately the complete correspondence and other surviving papers are now in the process of publication in a definitive edition, fully annotated (forming with the similar editions of the papers of other “founding fathers” the major scholarly achievement of American historical scholarship in this century).3

It is possible to discover Washington without reading all of these volumes, but once glimpsed the man is addictive. The fact that he is not an original thinker in any usual sense makes it the more enticing to examine the way he thought and acted in the many situations where the outcome depended on him. What he brought to the American Revolution and the creation of the republic was not creative genius, not brilliant maneuvers, not some profound insight. It was something much more mundane but at the same time so elusive, so difficult to define, that when it emerges in one situation after another, we begin to see what his contemporaries saw and to be overwhelmed by it as they were. What looked in the historical record like shortcomings are transformed into triumphs.

As the realization dawns, so does the need to share the discovery, and hence the host of books that have become almost an American literary genre. Most are biographies, big ones beginning with Marshall’s, then Washington Irving’s five volumes, and in this century Douglas Southall Freeman’s six and James Flexner’s four. Interspersed are numberless smaller ones, including one by his aide-de-camp, David Humphreys. Written in different stages before 1789, it remained unpublished until 1991, when Rosemarie Zagarri reconstructed it from the scattered fragments.4

What all the biographies seek to do, Humphreys’s included, is to embody the secret of Washington’s unique reputation in the narrative of a career that placed him at the center of so many critical passages in the creation of the United States. Attempts to humanize or debunk him as just another man, full of human weaknesses, miss the point, not so much because they are wrong as because they are irrelevant. There is plenty of material in his writings from which to reconstruct his day-to-day pursuits, to show that he was genuinely interested in farming and almost obsessively concerned, even during prolonged absences, with the management of his plantation at Mount Vernon. Washington the farmer is easily perceived, easily understood, and easily forgotten. That Washington is not the one who matters. But the one who matters is so closely identified with the creation of the United States that any biography, long or short, easily drifts into a history of the period.

Since the historical record, as suggested above, scarcely explains in itself why Washington mattered so much, the shorter biographies can seldom show as effectively as the longer ones that he did matter or how he mattered. And the longer ones are so long that we may need some preliminary incentive before tackling their bulk or the greater bulk of the new Papers.

The incentive can be found in some recent monographs that attempt to recover Washington’s public persona without following him through all the events of his public life. Paul Long-more, in The Invention of George Washington (1988), goes directly to Washington’s own conscious creation of the reputation that so dazzled his contemporaries and continues to dazzle anyone who studies him long enough. Longmore confines his closely argued treatment to Washington’s early years, before his national career and prominence began. Washington’s sensitivity to what the public thought of him has been noticed by all his biographers. What Longmore shows is that Washington’s preoccupation began when he first became a public man in Virginia in his early twenties.

Washington seems to have been born with a thirst for public respect of a special kind. He wanted nothing more than honor, and he had identified its ingredients so clearly that he knew he would miss getting it if he showed himself wanting it as badly as he did. He wished to be honored by deserving it. If his neighbors placed a high value on graceful ballroom dancing or fine horsemanship, he wanted not simply to have the reputation but to be the most graceful dancer and the finest horseman. If they honored physical courage, he would give them courage, leading Virginia’s militia against the French when he was only twenty-two. In the contest with England he found the larger cause he needed to gain larger honor and deliberately placed himself in a position to win it by command of the Continental Army. In the end his own successful quest won him the prestige to honor the cause that had honored him. Long-more is not a debunker. He, too, honors the man, because he sees that Washington continually sought to make nature imitate art, to make his life conform to the perfection of character and conduct that was his ideal.

Longmore’s is probably the best account of Washington’s character in the making. If it leaves us still a little puzzled, unable to explain why Washington was so successful in getting the honor he craved without performing the exceptional feats generally expected of magnificent heroes—the triumphs over odds, the ascents of Everests, the messages carried to Garcia—Barry Schwartz offers an answer in George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol (1987). As Schwartz sees it (drawing on the sociology of Emile Durkheim), Washington did not invent himself by himself; he was a construct fashioned by society to meet its own changing social and political needs.

Washington’s simplicity of mind and poker-faced reserve made it possible to project on him the image first of a great military commander and then of a great political leader. His impassive devotion to duty made him the perfect vessel into which all the other admired public virtues could be poured. Washington was quite ready to cooperate in the process. If, as Longmore shows, his consuming passion was to be honored, he was also alert to recognizing what would be most honorable and most honored in whatever situation confronted him. Schwartz examines not only the situations but the political culture in which they occurred and the way in which the elevation of Washington satisfied the successive demands of that culture.

  1. 1

    Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (Viking, 1938), pp. 611, 762.

  2. 2

    Irving Brant, James Madison: The Nationalist, 1780–1787 (Bobbs-Merrill, 1948), p. 321; Julian Boyd et al., editors, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press, 1950–), Vol. IX, p. 266; A.A. Lipscomb and A.E. Burgh, editors, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903–1904), Vol. XIII, pp. 46–52.

  3. 3

    W.W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, et al., editors, The Papers of George Washington (University Press of Virginia, 1976–). The edition is in five series: Diaries, Colonial, Revolutionary War, Confederation, and Presidential. The Diaries and the Colonial Series have been completed in sixteen volumes. The other three are in progress, with fourteen volumes completed, as well as the completed single volume, Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797.

  4. 4

    Rosemarie Zagarri, editor, David Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington,” with George Washington’s “Remarks,” (University of Georgia Press, 1991).

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