How have Americans dealt with the immortalization of the commanding general of the Continental Army of the United States of America and the nation’s first president. George Washington, like so many of the nation’s founders was a study in contrasts and contradictions, but few understand that as the case. This is in part because of the concerted hagiography and misinterpretation of this incredibly significant figure. Edward G. Lengel, editor of chief of the Washington Papers, offers in this short and accessible study the manner in which Washington the man has been reinterpreted for the benefit of U.S. citizens over the ages. He finds that two distinct portraits have emerged. He is first the “Father of His Country” and serves as an eternal symbol of all that the nation views as virtuous. His private life, however, has been elusive and poorly understood.
Both the public and the private man have been vital to American identity for more than 200 years, but these themes compete and conflict with each other give rise to separate mythologies that duel for primacy. Accordingly, was Washington the persevering enlightened man who championed and then guarded the progress of the American democratic republic or was he the wealthy slaveholder who accepted an evil system, perhaps not even fully understanding its corruption of himself? Of course, he was both.
At sum, by exploring how Washington has been interpreted over the life of the nation, Lengel offers a valuable exploration of the individual who lived and breathed and loved and hated and succeeded and failed just as all do. He also illuminates how the nation has embraced and distanced itself from him over time. This is an important and helpful book. If one either reveres or reviles Washington, this will help to establish balance in perspective. Lengel gives Washington his due, but also challenges extreme arguments of virtue or criticism of the first U.S. president.