Wednesday’s Book Review: Richard Brookhiser’s “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington”

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. By Richard Brookhiser. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Richard Brookhiser’s Founding Father is one of several recent biographies of America’s revolutionary generation that seeks to capture what he believes was the essence of George Washington’s wisdom and character. Brookhiser offers moral lessons for a new generation of Americans that he believes have not been exposed to these virtues, but could profit by drawing lessons from Washington’s life and career. At some level Founding Father is a reaction to Brookhiser’s repulsion at the current state of history in the nation’s universities.

He is reacting, at least in part, to a culture war that has been underway in the United States over the nature of the past, one fundamentally about identity and whether U.S. history would be viewed as a one people, one nation narrative or with a multicultural, in some cases divisive, perspective. That the past might be divisive deeply troubled some national opinion leaders who questioned the reexamination of traditional interpretations, and the more multicultural, relativistic, and conflict-oriented approach to delving into history.

This debate represented a battle for control of the national memory. Would it be one that is unified—one people, one nation—or one that was fragmented and conflict-oriented? This is an important issue and fully worthy of consideration by all in the marketplace of ideas. And the jury is still out.

Some critics of the dominant approach to the past taken by academic historians reacted by providing their own versions of history that emphasized unity and morality. Richard Brookhiser’s biography of George Washington is in this category. Brookhiser, a political operative and scholar associated with the National Review, emphasized on the “New Hour with Jim Lehrer on March 28, 1996, that “for all the efforts of, of the historians and the standard biographers, there’s still this, this blankness to the man’s image. So I thought it would be worthwhile to go back and, you know, not to uncover any new, new facts but to just put the ones that we know into a different light and to focus especially on the highlights of this public career and what it was about, about his character that enabled him to do them. You know, I’m not interested in details, if they don’t relate directly to that.”

Brookhiser’s selective retelling of the story of George Washington in this book is a blatant attempt to draw lessons from Washington’s career that serve the larger public good as Brookhiser understands it. It is essentially a late twentieth century version of Mason Weems’s The Life of Washington, but without fabricated tales such as the cherry tree episode included. As a study of Washington’s morals and virtues this work is most welcome. Having a point of view is not entirely a bad thing, and Brookhiser offers an eloquent one in this work. At the same time, as a work of history this is a decidedly less useful study of Washington than many others such as James Thomas Flexner’s magisterial multivolume biography. Knowing that most people will only read one book on Washington I would recommend a collective biography, Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), which is a tour de force of historical insight.

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