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The Real Washington at Last

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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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Bridgeman Art Library
George Washington at Mount Vernon; lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, 1852

Chernow begins by saying that Washington “ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history.” But not anymore, not after the appearance of his book. Chernow hopes that his readers, “instead of having a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation of this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.” That hope should be fulfilled for most readers. One comes away from the book feeling that Washington has finally become comprehensible. One comes to understand how this ambitious Virginia planter, despite numerous defects of judgment and many mistakes as a military commander, nevertheless earned the respect and admiration of his contemporaries.

Indeed, we today tend to lump all the Founders together as an esteemed group of leaders, but Americans at the time never did. In the eyes of his contemporaries Washington towered morally and politically over all the rest of the Founders—he was already being called the “father of his country” when he was commander in chief of the Revolutionary army. One of the reasons Washington said so little in the Constitutional Convention was his realization that if he took a strong position on an issue no one would want publicly to contest him. At the end of the convention he made his only proposal: that the minimum number of people each congressman should represent be lowered from 40,000 to 30,000—an innocuous change that signaled to all the members his support of the document; the proposal was adopted unanimously.

Chernow has not uncovered anything new about Washington or said anything about him that historians had not already known. His Washington is ambitious, self-educated, courageous, passionate, extremely self-controlled, sensitive, politically astute, and wise, with superb judgment and an acute instinct for power. Although there is nothing really original in this characterization, no one before has ever put together between two covers such a convincing depiction of the great man. It is Chernow’s well-paced and readable prose and the smooth organization of his story—divided into six parts with sixty-seven relatively short chapters—together with the sensible and impartial nature of his judgments that make the book so persuasive. Although he deals with all aspects of Washington’s life, both public and private, he keeps his narrative moving and never gets bogged down in excessive detail. His descriptions of Washington’s battles, for example, are clear but economical. He has a knack for summing up a character in a pithy phrase. “The arrogant, irascible Charles Lee…was a painfully thin man with a small head set on a spindly body.” On John Adams: “Rather small and paunchy, with a sharp mind and an argumentative personality, Adams was a farsighted prophet of independence, the curmudgeon who spoke uncomfortable truths.”

Chernow’s awareness of what other historians have said about Washington gives his book great authority, for he is able to bring his evenhanded judgment to contested issues. His handling of Washington’s relationship with Sally Fairfax, for instance, is judicious and balanced, as is his discussion of the charge that Washington fathered a mulatto slave named West Ford: “While historians have learned not to repudiate such stories with knee-jerk rigidity, George Washington’s paternity of West Ford seems highly doubtful.” Chernow always has a sure touch for picking illuminating anecdotes and a nice eye for the appropriate quotation. He writes, for example, that during the siege of Boston in 1775–1776 Washington “had succeeded so brilliantly in pretending to be securely armed that his main supporters overestimated his strength and expected more zeal in dislodging the British.” Then he quotes Washington’s observation—“The means used to conceal my weakness from the enemy conceals it also from our friends and adds to their wonder”—to clinch the point.

Because he is depicting a real and rounded human being and not creating a monument, Chernow makes no effort to hide any of Washington’s flaws or his mistakes of judgment. He does not apologize for these flaws and mistakes, but neither does he use them to discredit the man. He highlights Washington’s early obsession with money, his “naked, sometimes clumsy ambition,” his “tightfisted, sharp-elbowed” business practices, his occasional duplicity in land-dealing, his suppressed anger, his use of “blatantly unfair” tactics—convincing the overseer to allow his supporters to vote first—in winning Virginia elections, his fashion-mongering, and his sensitivity to slights. Chernow’s Washington is someone who “was ill at ease with public oratory and uncomfortable with flattery, perhaps because he secretly craved it.”

Chernow’s discussion of Washington and slavery is fair but unsparing in its candor. He brings up the issue throughout the book and clarifies Washington’s confused and ambivalent attitudes toward slavery better than many more lengthy accounts. Washington, he points out more than once, tended to regard slavery as a fair economic exchange: he clothed and fed his workers, and “in return, I expect such labor as they ought to render.” He never seemed “to understand,” writes Chernow, “why his slaves might regard this tacit bargain as preposterous.”

Being such an indefatigable worker himself, Washington could not comprehend their shirking ways. “He talked caustically about malingering slaves as if they were salaried workers who had failed to earn their wages—a blind spot he never entirely lost.” Yet he was never abusive toward his slaves, and he was scrupulous about keeping slave families together. He often respected the personal lives of his slaves, especially in the case of Billy Lee, his valet and constant companion with whom, says Chernow, he had a

remarkably affectionate, long-standing relationship…. Whether Washington was trotting off to the House of Burgesses, the Continental Congress, or Valley Forge, Lee was the trusted aide in attendance.

In discussing slavery Chernow is always aware of the social and political context in which Washington had to live. He notes, for example, that Virginia in the 1780s was full of anti-slavery sentiment and increasing numbers of manumissions. “Washington,” Chernow writes, “became the target of a subtle but persistent campaign by abolitionists to enlist him in their cause.” He told the abolitionists privately how much he hated slavery and promised to support emancipation in Virginia if it ever came to a vote. “This,” says Chernow, “typified Washington’s ambivalent approach to slavery in the 1780s: he privately made no secret of his disdain for the institution, but neither did he have the courage to broadcast his views or act on them publicly.” Washington shared the “common fantasy among the founders” that abolition could be deferred to some future date. In other words, the burden could be shifted onto later generations.

Yet he came to see, sooner and more acutely than many others, that slavery threatened the American Union to which he had dedicated his life. “I can clearly foresee,” he predicted to an English visitor in 1798, “that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.” In July 1799 he wrote a new will freeing upon his and Martha’s death all the slaves he legally could. (He could not free Martha’s dower slaves, who were committed to the Custis heirs.) Most impressive—and universal—was his provision that the freed slaves “be taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation.”

Chernow calls Washington’s writing of this will “the most courageous action of his career.” From our present perspective it hardly seems to be that, but as Chernow well knows, Washington had to take this bold step in the teeth of opposition from his community, his neighbors, his relatives, and perhaps even Martha herself. “By freeing his slaves,” writes Chernow,

Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery.

Chernow has written his biography with sympathetic detachment, keenly aware of the limitations of life. He has no ax to grind; his only object seems to be to render his subject as fully and as roundly as possible. His understanding of human nature is extraordinary and that is what makes his biography so powerful. Washington’s “pursuit of self-interest and selfless dedication to public service,” he writes, “were often intermingled, sometimes making it hard to disentangle his true motives. Perhaps for this reason, he could always discern both the base and noble sides of human nature.”

Washington was a man who grew and developed through time and experience. “This man of deep emotions and strong opinions,” possessing “a normal quota of human frailty, including a craving for money, status, and fame,” nevertheless

had learned to subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause, evolving into a statesman with a prodigious mastery of political skills and an unwavering sense of America’s future greatness.

His death released an outpouring of mourning. Over four hundred printed eulogies began the process of deification and mythologizing. Preachers compared him to Moses and turned him into a serene and sacred figure, which obscured his tough and passionate nature, making it difficult for future generations to recover the actual man and appreciate his achievements. Abigail Adams rightly rebelled at this image of Washington as a divine figure: “Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.” Chernow agrees: “To be convincing,” he writes, “Washington’s greatness did not need to be cleaned up or sanitized, only honestly presented.” That he has done in this splendid biography.

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