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…

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