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The Real Washington at Last

Brooklyn Museum
George Washington; painting by Charles Willson Peale, 1776

How many books on George Washington do we need before the monument finally becomes a man, before the remote and impenetrable statue is at last brought down to earth and made into an accessible human being? Right from the beginning Washington seems to have been a distant and unapproachable figure. “Did anybody ever see Washington nude?” asked Nathaniel Hawthorne. “It is inconceivable. He…was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.”

Shortly after Washington’s death, Mason Weems in his Life of Washington (1800) tried to humanize him by making up anecdotes about his youth, including his cutting down his father’s cherry tree, but his adoration of Washington was so great that his book, which is still in print, became an apotheosis of the man. Many biographies that tended to deify him followed, including a five-volume mausoleum by John Marshall in 1804–1807 and single-volume studies by Aaron Bancroft and David Ramsay in 1807. In 1835 James Kirke Paulding’s two-volume Life of Washington appeared, succeeded by Jared Sparks’s admiring biography in 1837. (As the first editor of the Washington papers, Sparks went about correcting the great man’s spelling, punctuation, and grammar and amending what he considered Washington’s vulgar phrases.) It almost seemed as if everyone with literary ambitions wanted to try his hand at a biography of the man who was first in the hearts of his countrymen. Washington Irving wrote five volumes in 1855–1859 and Edward Everett wrote a life in 1860.

With the emergence of scientific history-writing in the late nineteenth century Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson, Paul Leicester Ford, and others sought to dispel the myths and uncover the human being behind them, but their laudatory biographies still left the father of the country marbled and remote. By the 1920s Washington had become such a distant and deified figure that inevitably someone had to go to the other extreme and try to destroy the legend completely. Rupert Hughes and William Woodward (the inventor of the word “debunk”) stripped Washington of any idealism whatsoever, ridiculed the quality of his mind, and compared him to a petty banker.

With the publication of thirty-nine volumes of Washington’s papers edited by John C. Fitzpatrick between 1931 and 1944, the way was prepared for fuller and more objective studies of the Founder. Between 1948 and 1957 Douglas Southall Freeman wrote a seven-volume biography (the last completed by his assistants), and in 1965–1972 James Thomas Flexner wrote a four-volume life. During the past half-century or so there have been several short biographies of Washington, the best being Marcus Cunliffe’s George Washington: Man and Monument (1958) and Joseph J. Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington (2004). In the 1960s a vast publication project of all the Washington papers, including letters written to him, was launched at the University of Virginia. Promising eventually to comprise ninety volumes, the project at present is approximately two-thirds complete. It is also available in a digital edition.

With so many resources available there is apparently no limit to the number of works on various aspects of Washington’s life that can be written; indeed, with the exception of Lincoln, probably no American has more books about him than Washington. So we now have assessments of Washington’s political philosophy, his constitutionalism, his religion, his private life, his portraits, his leadership, his physical appearance, his interest in the Virginia backcountry, his concern for the decorative arts, his enlightenment, his place in popular culture, his view of the Union, and his relations with his wife Martha, Lafayette, James Madison, Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, Benedict Arnold, his other generals, and various other revolutionaries. There are studies of Washington as a president, as a slaveholder, as a man of the West, as a general, as a partisan fighter, as an American symbol, as the modern Cincinnatus, as a Freemason, as a young man, as a patriarch, as a visionary, as a spymaster, as the architect and owner of Mount Vernon, as the designer of the nation’s capital, as the French saw him, and as the master manipulator of public opinion.

One of the more intriguing recent studies of this sort is Barnet Schecter’s George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps. As a surveyor, land speculator, military commander, and president, Washington was obviously an enthusiastic collector of maps. At his death in 1799 his library at Mount Vernon contained more than ninety maps and atlases. Among them was an atlas of eastern North America, as Schecter writes, consisting of forty-three map sheets. This atlas passed down through four generations of Washington’s nephews as part of the Mount Vernon library. Not Washington himself, but someone along the way arranged the maps in geographical order—from Canada, down the eastern seaboard, and west to Louisiana—and bound them between two marbleized covers. In 1876 this atlas was sold at auction, and a century later in 1970 it ended up being purchased by Yale University.

Schecter has concluded that this Yale atlas

furnishes enough material to tell Washington’s entire life story, which is inseparable from that of the geographic evolution of the thirteen colonies into a unified, expanding nation and the preservation of American independence after the war.

Since this atlas “reflects Washington’s interests and concerns, bringing his experiences and his vision of America into sharp focus,” Schecter has combined twenty-five of the forty-three map sheets from the atlas with some additional maps from Washington’s library, a few maps Washington drew himself, and some created especially for Schecter’s book in order to create “a narrative enriched by his diaries and papers” that allows us to look over Washington’s shoulder as he made his way through the landscapes of his life.

The phrase “enriched by his diaries and papers” gives it all away. As important as maps were to Washington’s life and as beautiful as the illustrated maps are in this expensive book, there is no way these maps by themselves can tell Washington’s entire life story. They are superb illustrations and wonderful markers that nicely supplement Schecter’s fair-minded text, but the story of Washington’s life has to rest almost totally on his diaries and papers.

Those diaries and papers, supplemented by dozens of secondary sources, are certainly the basis for Ron Chernow’s superb biography, which unfortunately does not contain a single map. In writing the biography Chernow not only consulted all of Washington’s published papers and many other contemporary sources but also read nearly everything written about Washington over the past half-century or so. The result is the best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written.

Chernow is an outstanding member of the new breed of popular historians who dominate narrative history-writing in the United States today. Independent scholars such as Chernow, David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Jon Meacham, Thomas Fleming, Stacy Schiff, Richard Brookhiser, David O. Stewart, James Grant, Eric Jay Dolin, Barnet Schecter, and others do not have Ph.D.s in history and possess no academic appointment. They are not engaged in the conversations and debates that academic historians have with one another, and they write their history not for academic historians but for educated general readers interested in history. This gap between popular and academic historians has probably existed since the beginning of scientific history-writing at the end of the nineteenth century, but it has considerably widened over the past half-century or so. During the 1950s academic historians with Ph.D.s and university appointments, such as Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Allan Nevins, Eric F. Goldman, Daniel Boorstin, and C. Vann Woodward, wrote simultaneously for both their fellow academicians and educated general readers.

This is normally no longer possible. Academic historians now write almost exclusively for one another and focus on the issues and debates within the discipline. Their limited readership—many history monographs sell fewer than a thousand copies—is not due principally to poor writing, as is usually thought; it is due instead to the kinds of specialized problems these monographs are trying to solve. Since, like papers in physics or chemistry, these books focus on narrow subjects and build upon one another, their writers usually presume that readers will have read the earlier books on the same subject; that is, they will possess some prior specialized knowledge that will enable them to participate in the conversations and debates that historians have among themselves. This is why most historical monographs are often difficult for general readers to read; new or innocent readers often have to educate themselves in the historiography of the subject before they can begin to make sense of many of these monographs.

So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the specialized subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science.

The problem at present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history-writing to the nonacademic historians and independent scholars who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists.

This is not true of Ron Chernow. Not only has he read nearly all the secondary sources dealing with Washington and his times, but he dutifully quotes the authors of these secondary works at appropriate moments in his narrative. His ability to master the secondary sources as well as the primary materials is the secret of his remarkable success as a biographer, especially with his new success in the eighteenth century. Although Chernow began his history-writing career working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on banking and business figures such as J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, with his award-winning biography of Hamilton in 2004 and now this life of Washington he has made himself at home in the very different eighteenth century.

He has been able to make this switch so effectively because he came to appreciate what a strange and foreign world existed back then. He did not enter into Hamilton’s or Washington’s papers naively or innocently; he seems to have first grounded himself in the secondary histories of the eighteenth century. Consequently, there is no anachronism in his books and none of the present-minded judgments that sometimes afflict popular histories of the eighteenth century. Because he also has a feel for the contentious historical issues in the lives of his characters, his book ought to satisfy academic historians as well as the general readers who may be unaware of these issues.

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