For King and Country: The Maturing of George Washington, 1748-1760
by Thomas A. Lewis
(HarperCollins, 203 pp., $27.50)
Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation
by Richard Norton Smith
(Houghton Mifflin, 424 pp., $24.95)
George Washington is a hard man to get to know. Despite repeated attempts to humanize hint, beginning with Parson Weems's efforts in 1800 to demonstrate that the young Washington could cut down cherry trees but never tell a lie, he remains to this day, as historians like to say, more a monument than a man. Even his contemporaries came to realize that he was not an ordinary, accessible human being. In 1783 Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, could scarcely restrain his desire to deify the man. "O Washington," be exclaimed. "How I do love lily name! How have I often adored and blessed thy God, for creating and forming thee, the great ornament of human kind!"
And so it went: with every passing year he became less and less a real person. By the early nineteenth century be had already become an impenetrable statue and, as Emerson said of every hero, "a bore at last." "Did anyone ever see Washington nude?" Hawthorne asked. "It is inconceivable." Washington "was born with his clothes on, and haft powdered, and made a stately how on his first appearance in the world." By the middle of the nineteenth century, the eulogies of Washington had become so conventional and prevalent that a humorist like Artemus Ward could not resist parodying them: "G. Washington was about the best man this world ever set eyes on.... He never slopt over!... He lured his country dearly. He wasn't after the spiles. He was a human angil in a 3 kornered hat and knee britches."
If even the genteel nineteenth century found Washington inaccessible and insufferable, one can imagine the problems of historians and others trying to depict Washington in our own postmodern and postheroic age, saturated as it is in self-conscious irony, in which absolutely nothing (let alone heroes) can be taken at face value. How can anyone today say anything serious about Washington, that most earnest, unapproachable and unironic of characters? No wonder historians are careful to preface their works by announcing that they are going to rescue the human Washington who has been hidden beneath a mass of monuments and grim-faced portraits by Gilbert Stuart. They can scarcely entertain the notion that what they see represented in the marble monuments and the Stuart portraits--a stern and remote classical figure--is the real man.
So Thomas A. Lewis opens his study of Washington's youth by announcing that he hopes to "break through the marble to the flesh." He has chosen to write about Washington's life in Virginia before he became canonized by the nation, because in those early years he was most human and most "like us." In Washington's life it was a time of failure, of conniving, of self-interested ambition, of rejection by men and women of good judgment. Such weaknesses, says Lewis, do not diminish the high achievements of Washington's life or the enduring quality" of his character. But they do "bring such a life as his within our reach."
In a similar manner Richard Norton Smith explains why he has focused his book on Washington's presidency. The hero, he writes, "has become so shrouded in legend that it is difficult to retrieve the man behind the marble exterior." If Washington's human side is to be recovered at all, Smith believes that it can best be done by concentrating on his final troubled years as president and in retirement. The 1790s saw Washington ravaged by time and factious politics, and worn down by his increasing apprehension and disillusionment over the future of the country. It was a time, says Smith, when "to modern eyes" Washington "appears most human because most vulnerable."
It is true, as Lewis says, that Washington's formative years, before he became an international hero, were marked by many failures and weaknesses. In the 1750s no one could have predicted that the young officer in the Virginia militia would emerge as one of the greatest men of his age. Washington was born in 1732, the third youngest son of a successful but not dominant Virginia planter. His initial prospects were not all that promising, and they seemed even less so after his father died when Washington was only 11. But the patronage of the Fairfax family, the premature death of his older half-brother and the midcentury wars with the French and the Indians gave him opportunities, and his driving ambition did the rest.
Even by 1759, however, he had by no means become a great man. "He had spent five years,' writes Lewis, "in pursuit of military success and a King's commission, had achieved neither and had turned his back on both." Still, by the end of 1759 he had inherited Mount Vernon, married a wealthy widow named Martha Custis and become a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Most importantly, despite all his military failures during the Seven Years' War--"his first armed engagement [the ambush of Jumonville had been called murder; his second and third [his surrender at Fort Necessity and his involvement in Braddock's expedition] had been bloody and humiliating defeats; now his fourth [his mistaken skirmish with George Mercer's Virginians in 1758] had been fratricidal"--Washington emerged from the fighting with his military reputation intact. Indeed, although he was not to engage in military matters again for seventeen years, he retained his reputation as the colonial officer with the most experience under fire.
Lewis recounts the story of these turbulent years of Washington's maturing with extraordinary narrative skill. His account is realistic and tough-minded his pace is fast and energetic, his tone is detached and ironic without being cynical. He opens his story with a brief description of Washington's impending meeting with the French forces encamped on the shores of Lake Erie in December 1753. But before revealing what happened in this wilderness confrontation between the British and French empires, Lewis fills in the background of his story--detailing Washington's insatiable desire for land and a royal commission, his contempt for the Indians and the fog of ignorance that surrounded all the English's dealings with the Native Americans, and the problems of the French and their extended lines--all the while deftly holding the reader in suspense by repeatedly foreshadowing Washington's mission and the subsequent events that would touch off a world war.
Lewis ends his story of Washington's life in 1760, when the young man was only 28, still presumably ambitious, self-serving and land-hungry. Indeed, despite his subtitle and suggestions that Washington in 1760 was much more American than he had been in 1748, Lewis never really explains how the clumsy and impetuous officer of the French and Indian War could become the mature and astute military leader of 1775. But nobody else has either. As Don Higginbotham has recently pointed out, most Washington scholars simply "see a marvelous transformation having taken place by the time of the Revolution."
Smith avoids the problem by beginning his story in 1789 with Washington's presidency. Smith's book is also a narrative history, longer and fuller than Lewis's, but by no means as skillfully written. Indeed, Smith has packed a great deal into his account, and thus his narrative line is often confusing and hard to follow, even for a reader well acquainted with the period. For an innocent reader for someone who does not already know, for example, what the issue of the federal assumption of state debts was about, the story is apt to become unintelligible. Smith recounts Washington's life chronologically, almost as Washington experienced it, and consequently he tends to juxtapose and to mingle many different events, public and private; some are barely alluded to, and others often are never fully worked out or explained in one place.
Thus an incomplete description of Washington's indecision about standing for a second term is interrupted by discussions of his aversion to sitting for portraits and of his handling of his niece's education, which is then followed by a brief account of Jefferson's mounting opposition to the direction of the national administration, ending with elusive references to Hamilton's affair with Mrs. Reynolds and the threat of Hamilton's exposing 'Jefferson's youth fill attempt to throw himself upon the wife of his best friend, until recently a United States senator from Virginia." Still, all the anecdotes, all the stories of the period are here in Smith's book, from Benjamin Rush's excessive bleeding of yellow fever victims to Anne Bingham's elaborate dinner parties; and out of all the detail an interesting portrait of Washington as "the fulcrum of American security and nationhood" does emerge.
Although both these books present ample pictures of Washington at particular times in his life, they cannot, even when read together, of let a complete understanding of the man. By avoiding the Washington of the revolutionary era, neither book can ever fully explain why Washington came to be one of the most celebrated men of his age. Lewis makes dear that Washington's career as a colonial militia officer in the Seven Years' War was anything but notable, and Smith shows that Washington's presidency, for all its successes and its strengths, was scarcely the source of his fame; indeed, he had to bear with a degree of scurrility that makes our present-day press seem tame by comparison.
Washington came to the presidency in 1789 with a worldwide reputation for greatness already established. That is, ilk fact, one of the reasons that lie was so reluctant to assume the office of president. The desire for fame was what Hamilton called "the ruling passion of the noblest minds." Fame was what the Founding Fathers were after, Washington above all. Washington had become famous sooner and in greater degree than any of his contemporaries. And, having naturally achieved what his fellow Revolutionaries still anxiously sought he was reluctant to risk it by failing as president.
The source of Washington's fame was not his military exploits in the Revolution. They were important, of course, in helping to make his reputation, but Washington was not really a traditional military hero. He did not resemble Alexander, Caesar, Cromwell or Marlborough; his military achievements were nothing compared with those of which Napoleon would soon boast. Washington had no smashing, stunning victories. He was not a military genius, and his tactical and strategic maneuvers were not the sort that awed men. It was not Cornwallis's surrender of the British army at Yorktown in 1781 that made him famous. It was, rather, Washington's surrender of his sword to Congress, and his retirement to his tram at Mount Vernon in 1783, that really electrified the world.
It was extraordinary, unprecedented in modern times: a victorious general surrendering his arms and returning to his farm. Cromwell, William of Orange, Marlborough: all had sought political rewards commensurate with their military achievements. After Yorktown, Cornwallis simply assumed that Washing Ion would be granted great political offices, It was widely thought that Washington could have become king or dictator hut he wanted nothing of the kind. He was sincere in his desire for all the soldiers "to return to our Private Stations in the bosom of a free, peaceful and happy Country," and everyone recognized his sincerity, It filled them with awe. Washington's retirement, said the painter John Trumbull, writing from London in 1784, "excites the astonishment and admiration of this part of the world. Tis a Conduct so novel, so unconceivable to People, who, far from giving tip powers they possess, are willing to convulse the empire to acquire more." King George Ill supposedly predicted that if Washington retired from public life and returned to his farm, "he will be the greatest man in the world."
Washington was not naive. He was well aware of the effect that his resignation would have. He was trying to live up to the age's image of a classical disinterested patriot who devotes his life to his country, and he knew at once that he had acquired instant tame as a modern Cincinnatus. His reputation in the 1780s as a great classical hero was international, and it was virtually unrivaled. Benjamin Franklin was his only competitor, hut Franklin's greatness still lay in his being a scientist, not a man of public affairs. Washington was a living embodiment of all the classical republican virtue that the age was eagerly striving to recover. As Fisher Ames observed, he "changed mankind's ideas of political greatness."
Despite his outward modesty, Washington never forgot that he was an extraordinary man, and he was not ashamed of it. He lived in an era in which distinctions of rank were still accepted-indeed, celebrated. He had no desire to be taken for an ordinary person, for what he called "a broomstick." He took for granted the differences between himself and the "common herd," and when he could not take those differences for granted he cultivated them. He used his natural reticence to reinforce the image of a stern and forbidding classical hero. His aloofness was notorious, and he worked at it. When Gilbert Smart had difficulty in putting Washington at ease during a sitting for a portrait, in exasperation he finally pleaded, "Now sir you must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart, the painter." Washington's reply chilled the air: "Mr. Smart need never feel the need of forgetting who he is or who General Washington is." It is not surprising that the portraits look the way they do.
Many of Washington's actions after 1783 can be understood only in terms of his deep concern for his reputation as a virtuous Cincinnatus-like hero. He was constantly on guard, and very sensitive to criticism, (Jefferson said that no one was more sensitive.) He judged all his actions by what people might think of them. This sometimes makes him seem silly to modern minds, but not to the minds of the eighteenth century. They understood the importance of honor and reputation,
Because he had promised his countrymen in 1783 that he would retire permanently to his farm, Washington suffered great anguish over whether to attend the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Many believed that his presence was necessary for the effectiveness of the Convention, but the situation was tricky. He wrote to friends imploring them to tell him "confidentially what the public expectation is on this head, that is, whether I will or ought to be there?" How would his presence be seen, how would his motives be viewed? If be attended, would he be thought to have violated his pledge to withdraw from public life? But if he did not attend, would his staying away be thought to be a "dereliction to Republicanism"? Should he squander his reputation on something that might not work? What if the Convention should fail? The delegates would have to return home "chagrined at their ill success and disappointment. This would be a disagreeable circumstance for any one of them to be in; but more particularly so for a person in my situation." Even Madison had second thoughts about the possibility of misusing an asset as precious as Washington's reputation. What finally convinced Washington to attend the Convention was the fear that people might think he wanted the federal government to fail so that be could then manage a military takeover. So in the end he decided, as Madison put it, "to forsake the honorable retreat to which he had retired and risk the reputation he had so deservedly acquired." No action could be more virtuous. "Secure as be was in his fame," wrote Henry Knox with some awe, "he has again committed it to the mercy of events. Nothing but the critical situation of his country would have induced him to so hazardous a conduct."
After the Constitution was established, Washington still believed he could retire to the domestic tranquillity of Mount Vernon. But everyone else expected that he would become president of the new national government. Indeed, the Convention had made the new chief executive so strong, so kinglike, precisely because the delegates expected Washington to be the first president. Once again this widespread expectation aroused all his old anxieties about his reputation. He had promised the country that he would permanently retire from public life. How could he now assume the presidency without being "changeable with levity and inconsistency; if not with rashness and ambition?" His protests were sincere. He had so much to lose and so little to gain. But he did not want to appear "too solicitous for reputation." He was certain, he told his friend Henry Lee, "whensoever I shall be convinced the good of my country requires my reputation to put at risque; regard for my own fame will not come in competition with an object of so much magnitude."
But Washington could not continue to pose the issue starkly in this way as one between duty and reputation. For the more be thought about it, the more accepting and not accepting the presidency became matters of reputation, especially after Hamilton suggested to him that there might be "greater hazard to that fame, which must be and ought to be dear to you, in refusing your furore aid to the system than in affording it." It was not easy to make decisions when a concern for one's virtue was viewed as unvirtuous. Nothing could make him abandon his retirement, Washington told Benjamin Lincoln in 1788, "unless it be a conviction that the partiality" of my Countrymen had made my services absolutely necessary, joined to a fear that my refusal might induce a belief that I preferred the conservation of my own reputation and private ease, to the good of my (Country."
Washington's apparent egotism and his excessive coyness, his extreme reluctance to get involved in public affairs and to endanger his reputation, have not usually been well received by historians, Douglas Southall Freeman, his great biographer, thought that Washington ill the late 1780s was "too zealously attentive to his prestige, his reputation and his popularity--too much the self-conscious national hero and too little the daring patriot." Some historians might not understand his behavior, but his contemporaries certainly did. They rarely doubted that Washington was trying always to act in a disinterested way. His anxious queries about how this or that would look to the world, his hesitations about serving or not serving, his expressions of scruples and qualms--all were part of his strenuous effort to live tip to the classical idea of a virtuous leader, tie seemed to epitomize public virtue. Even it John Adams was not all that impressed with George Washington> Abigail Adams was certainly taken with him. She admired Iris restraint and trusted him. "If he was not really one of the best-intentioned men in the world," she wrote, "be might he a very dangerous one." As Garry Wills has nicely put it, Washington gained his power by his readiness to relinquish it.
As in the case of his career as commander in chief, Washington's most important act as president was his giving tip of the office. The significance of Iris retirement from the presidency is easy for its to overlook, bin his contemporaries knew what it meant. Most people assumed that Washington might be president as long as he lived, that he would he a kind of elective monarch, something not out of the question in the eighteenth century and indeed in much of the world today. Hence his persistent efforts to retire from the presidency enhanced his moral authority and helped to fix the republican character of the Constitution,
He very much wanted to retire in 1792, but his advisers and his blends felt otherwise. Madison admitted that when lie had first urged Washington to accept the presidency, he told him that he could protect himself from accusations of overweening ambition by "a voluntary return to private life as soon as the state of the Government would permit." But the state of the government said Madison in 1792, was not yet secure. Washington sought to discover what others thought, and everywhere the answer was the same: he must stay on. Hamilton even tried the ultimate argument, that retirement when he was needed would be "critically hazardous to your own reputation."
But it was left to a female friend, to Eliza Powel, to develop this point and to hammer it home. If Washington followed his inclinations and retired from the presidency, she wrote, his enemies would attack his reputation. They would say "that ambition has been the moving spring of all your acts," and that now, when the going was tough and his fame could not be enhanced, he "would take no further risks" for the people. How to preserve one's reputation without at the same time allowing concern for that reputation to overcome one's duty was a peculiar dilemma of the eighteenth century. Washington stayed on for another term.
In 1796, however, he was so determined to retire that no one could dissuade him, and his voluntary leaving of the office set a precedent that was not broken until Franklin Roosevelt secured a third term in 1940. Washington's action in 1796 was of great significance. That the chief executive of a state should willingly relinquish his office was an object lesson in republicanism at a time when the republican experiment throughout the Atlantic world was very much in doubt.
Washington's final years in retirement were not happy ones. The American political world was changing, and Washington struggled to comprehend it. In July 1799, in the last year of his life, Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, with the backing of many others, urged Washington once again to stand for the presidency in 1800. Only Washington, Trumbull said, could save the country from "a French president." that is, from Jefferson. Finally Washington had had enough, in his reply he no longer bothered with references to his reputation for disinterestedness and his desire to play the role of Cincinnatus. Instead he talked about the new political conditions that made his candidacy irrelevant. In this new democratic era of party politics, he said, "personal influence." distinctions of character, lit) longer mattered. If the members of either party "set tip a broomstick" as candidate and called it "a true son of Liberty" or "a Democrat" or "any other epithet that will suit their purpose," it still would "command their votes in toto!" Party spirit now ruled all, and people voted only for their party candidate. Even if he wine the candidate of the Federalist Party, he was "thoroughly convinced I should not draw a single vote from the anti-federal side." Therefore his standing for election made no sense; he would "stand upon no stronger ground than any other Federal character well supported."
Washington wrote all this in anger and despair. He exaggerated, but he was essentially right. The political world was changing, becoming democratic, and soon parties, not great men, would become the objects of contention. To be sure, Americans have continued to long for heroes as leaders, and from Jackson through Eisenhower we have periodically elected a Washington manqu? to the presidency. But democracy made such great heroes no longer essential to the workings of American government. And Washington, more than any other individual, was the one who made that democracy possible. As Jefferson put it, "The moderation and virtue of a single character ... probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish." That is why Washington remains, and must remain, a great American hero.
Gordon S. Wood is University Professor and professor of history at Brown University. He is the author most recently of The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Knopf).