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.
Thus when the colonial resistance to British policies turned to war in 1775, society needed a collective symbol to embody the radical change of direction in the public mind. Washington’s appointment to military command filled the need and made him “the best-known and most admired man in the colonies” before he had to do anything but look the part. Nor did he have to do much more to sustain and magnify the role thrust upon him. “The idea of George Washington,” more than the man himself, “was essential to America’s militant arousal and to her incipient national consciousness.” And so it went. After the war, when the union was in danger of collapse, “loyalty to Washington the individual held the government together until the people could learn to be loyal to the government itself.” When the new Constitution was proposed, it must be identified with Washington in order to succeed; and he must preside over the new government, for “the public’s image of Washington had blended so deeply into its image of the presidency as to make the two virtually inseparable.” His reputation became so elevated as to be something of a handicap: anything he did as president that seemed less than godlike could generate a disappointment that easily turned into an exaggerated hostility, which he felt, Jefferson noted, “more than any person I ever yet met with.”5 But for most Americans disappointment was unthinkable and hostility a sacrilege. In Washington they could see only the public virtues they wished to see in themselves.
Schwartz’s analysis is perceptive, but it tells us more about the sociology of hero worship than about Washington himself, whose image was more malleable than the man could have been. Garry Wills, in Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (1984), offered a more searching explanation of what it was in Washington that made his pursuit of honor so successful. Wills opens his meditation—for that is really what his book is—with an observation that he pursues through the familiar passages of Washington’s career (assisted by the painters and sculptors who tried to open the secret on canvas and in marble): “He was a virtuoso of resignations. He perfected the art of getting power by giving it away.” The obvious example is the resignation of his commission after the war: his refusal to seize the power that a Caesar or a Cromwell would have grasped. That refusal earned him an international prestige and domestic power that no other American before or since has ever approached. Wills cites Benjamin West, the American painter exiled in England during the war, who was asked by King George III (Farmer George to many of his subjects) what Washington would do if he should win. When West said that he would probably return to his farm, the King allegedly replied, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” He did and he was. He was Cincinnatus in an age when people knew who Cincinnatus was and what he did.
Wills does not contend that Washington was hungry for power and used devious means of gaining it by pretending to spurn it. On the other hand, it is clear, as Longmore shows, that Washington always valued his prestige and by no means disdained the power that it carried. He cultivated the aloofness that still surrounds him, with full awareness that it supported the personal authority which seemingly required him to direct the nation while renouncing its direction. His first significant resignation came not at the end of the war but at the beginning, when he chose to serve as commander-in-chief without compensation, a gesture that contributed to his hold over the soldiers who served under him. He never lost an opportunity to strengthen that hold, whether by using his rank or by refraining from using it. The furthest thing from his mind, however, was to appear in the character of a popular commander. His great achievement in the war was to keep his army in existence, despite a feckless Congress, despite superior British forces continually threatening him, and he did it by the force of example and the loyalty it engendered.
As Wills puts it, “Others might use armies better; but Washington best grasped that the problem was to create an army, to keep it in existence, by embodying its cause.” He knew that success in war depended on destroying the enemy’s army. But he also knew that the republican principles animating the Revolution (the demands of the political culture) depended on the army’s subordination to civil power, however inept and irresponsible that power might be. He kept his own army from destruction by dodging the British, becoming a master of retreat—another kind of resignation—until he was in a position to destroy them, and then he swept his troops back to their farms as he went back to his. His resignation of command would have meant little if he had not been able to carry his men, unpaid and underpaid, with him. The old French generals recognized him for a great captain because he did not let a superior force destroy his army. The world recognized him for a great man, because he did not let his victorious army turn loyalty to him into a military dictatorship of the United States under his direction.
The interval after the war that ended with the adoption of the Constitution offers Wills the most impressive example of Washington’s exercising power by not exercising it. Washington knew that the United States desperately needed an effective government, but he refrained from any public activity to bring it about and even hesitated until the last moment before agreeing to attend the Convention that created it. It was the people around him, especially James Madison, who did the job but did so in full knowledge that their success depended on his silent support. He must be seen to preside at the Convention and sign the document, but neither participate in debating its provisions nor publicly advocate its adoption. To do so would lessen the force of his approbation by making him a partisan rather than a gift-giver. The Constitution was hailed everywhere as his work, and he would have suggested the possibility of its being something less if he had stooped to praising it. By leaving the people to decide its fate without engaging himself in the debate over it, he became, Wills points out, the embodiment of Rousseau’s ideal legislator, who “shall not use either force or argument,” but “resort to another kind of authority entirely, an ability to lead without compelling and persuade without proving.”
Washington probably never read Rousseau, but he needed no model and no instructor. Although he was probably not above thinking of himself as Cincinnatus or Cato, he acted or refrained from action out of an instinctive, deliberate dignity that never deserted him. He was a virtuoso not merely of resignation but of understatement, indeed of silence. No one, not even Freeman or Flexner, has caught this cryptic quality better than Wills.
The discovery of Washington continues, and discoverers continue to write about it. The latest entry is Richard Brookhiser, who previously squandered his talents on a jeremiad for the demise of WASP hegemony. In Washington Brookhiser has found a subject more worthy of those talents, which are considerable. Brookhiser can pin down character traits in a few phrases, sometimes glib but often brilliant, as in his dismissal of Washington’s early advisers in the presidency: “Hamilton was a know-it-all, who (even worse) often did know it all. Madison, beneath a layer of intense shyness, was equally headstrong, while Jefferson had the deep deviousness that is given only to the pure of heart.”
Pureness of heart is what contemporaries preferred to ascribe to Washington, but deviousness, deep or shallow, did not accompany it. Washington’s was a less transparent nature than Jefferson’s, not susceptible to simple characterization and not easily penetrated. Brookhiser knows that. He has glimpsed Washington, seen enough to recognize that “his patterns of expression and thought reveal themselves slowly,” that his writings offer a clue, but “the effect they make is cumulative,” that they require “time and effort—as much time and effort as it takes to decode his deeds.”
Brookhiser has given the requisite time and effort, assisted in no small way by the previous interpretations of Wills and Longmore, and has given us his own brief decoding of words and deeds. He rightly rejects the debunkers and humanizers who try to turn the man into someone like us. “We must look for the man,” he says, “in the glare of public life,” and begins with a graceful recitation of his career, occupying half the book but still too sketchy to reveal the elements that made it so puzzlingly triumphant.
In a second part of the book Brookhiser tries to identify those elements, which, he has assured us, give the life of Washington “the power to inspire anyone who studies it.” Here he hits first upon some superficial and obvious things that, though often noticed, tend to be slighted in more sophisticated analyses of Washington’s power. The first is simply physical. Washington was a big man, six feet two or three, in an age when that was a towering height, and he made the most of it in an erect and commanding posture that seemed to dwarf everyone around him, of whatever size. As Benjamin Rush put it, in words dear to every biographer: “There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.” Washington wanted honor, and he carried himself as though he merited it. It was especially true of the way he rode a horse, which everyone seems to have remarked upon.
It would be easy to belittle the importance of so everyday a thing as personal appearance in the conduct of government, but we judge people by their looks and demeanor more than we usually realize. If we could see Washington in the company of the other founding fathers, especially if they were on horseback—which is where they often were—we would know who was number one without a word said. In case there should be any doubt, Washington would be wearing a smart military uniform of his own design that would make the others look shabby.
As he was careful of his appearance before other people, so he was also careful to mind his manners. Though he was short-tempered, he did not fly out at other people but rather followed the ancient precepts of politeness and self-command. And Brookhiser, after describing Washington’s habits in social intercourse, shrewdly observes that “Politeness is the first form of politics.”
But good manners and an imposing appearance are scarcely sufficient to inspire those of us not directly exposed to them. When Brookhiser gets beyond appearances to “the importance to Washington of right ideas,” we hope and expect to get to the heart of the matter, especially since Brookhiser tells us that “it was in the name of right ideas about politics and government that he commanded his countrymen.” Possibly so, but for a man who could express himself in speech and writing with extraordinary clarity, Washington’s ideas about politics and government remained diffuse and inarticulate, to be found only in conventional phrases here and there in his writings.
Washington accepted the prevailing view of other American colonists that the British government was corrupt and bent on tyranny. He clearly thought that republican government was superior to monarchy. But he did not say why and wrote virtually nothing on the subject. His contemporaries could not believe that he ever read much on that topic or any other, probably because his speech and writing so seldom reflected any reading. Longmore offers proof, in a long appendix, that Washington read more than acquaintances realized, and Brookhiser follows Longmore in reciting how many books and newspapers Washington kept. But exactly what ideas meant so much to him is not to be found in any distinct exposition of them by Washington himself or by Brookhiser.
Instead of trying to decipher what his ideas may have been, Brookhiser is reduced to telling us how important to Washington were the Anglican Church, the Bible, Freemasonry, and the theater, an analysis which hardly distinguishes him from his Virginian compatriots. His religious conceptions, such as they were, have to be discerned in a few mentions of “providence,” his familiarity with the Scriptures in a handful of quotations that were commonplace clichés of the day, like “every man under his vine and under his fig tree.” Devotees of Freemasonry were supposed to be secretive about their cult anyhow, and Washington, as we have seen, never found discretion or silence to be a heavy yoke. And the theatrical performances he witnessed, apart from Addison’s Cato, seem to have been designed simply for entertainment. Washington did not gain his power to command by reading the Bible, going to church or the playhouse, or engaging in Masonic ceremonies. If right ideas were what mattered to him, he was not much given to talking about them.
Brookhiser closes his book with a more fruitful disquisition on fatherhood and Washington’s role as father of his country. Washington doubtless cherished the title, given him as early as 1778. But more importantly he identified the honor he sought so assiduously with the country and the people who gave it to him and whom he himself regarded as his offspring. His final resignation of power becomes the more meaningful, as Brookhiser stresses, because it meant giving up his most cherished possession. This time he was not giving up power in order to keep it. He was a father turning out his sons and daughters to make it on their own.
What emerges from these four books is a Washington in conscious pursuit of honor and power by means of deserving honor and power. He got them and deserved them by identifying himself wholly with the people who conferred them. What makes him so difficult to discover and the discovery so surprising must be the completeness of the identification. Patriotism is so often a disguise that the genuine article is always surprising. How it could propel a man of ordinary talents to the unique position Washington attained among Americans is more than a surprise. It remains a kind of mystery that yields itself to view only gradually.
The great biographers and a few commentators like Wills can take us close to it, but in the end there is no substitute for the Papers. The route through them is long, but it is not dull. For Washington, whether or not he did much reading, knew how to write. He had a great many amanuenses, and the quality of his writing is often attributed to them, but the consistent force and clarity have to be the expression of a single mind. It was not the mind of an intellectual, but it was a mind whose simple power is reflected in his every move. Its workings can be found in every volume of his Papers. The most recent one, for example, covers most of the year 1786, when Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts had everyone worried. Washington’s friends suggested that he come to the scene and use his influence to calm the rebels. His reply was typical:
Influence is no government…. My humble opinion is, that there is a call for decision. Know precisely what the Insurgents aim at. If they have real grievances, redress them, if possible, or acknowledge the justice of their complaints and your inability of doing it, in the present moment. If they have not [real grievances], employ the force of government against them at once.6
The “right ideas” that gave Washington the power to command have to be deduced from passages like this throughout his Papers. They are not susceptible to profound analysis nor do they need it; but the cumulative effect, as noticed by Brookhiser, leaves the reader in no doubt about what made Washington the founding father. The United States has not yet shut down funding for these splendid volumes by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thirty have now appeared, with many more than that to come if the project is enabled to continue. We may still hope that the new Congress, however ready to starve his children, will stop short of committing literary patricide. Read the Papers.
February 29, 1996
Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (Viking, 1938), pp. 611, 762. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Rosemarie Zagarri, editor, David Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington,” with George Washington’s “Remarks,” (University of Georgia Press, 1991). ↩
To James Madison, June 9, 1793, in W.T. Hutchinson, Robert Rutland, et al., editors, The Papers of James Madison (University of Chicago Press and University Press of Virginia, 1962–), Vol. XV, p. 27. ↩
The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. IV, p. 319. ↩