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 …

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