Cunliffe’s aim is to examine Washington objectively, as myth and man, neither debunking nor romanticizing. While tracing salient biographical facts, he also encompasses in broad outline the major incidents and personalities of the French and Indian War, the War of Independence, and the early years of the new republic. Consequently, the book serves as both an evaluative biography and a compressed history text. Written for a general readership, it is of interest to young as well as mature adults because of its lively approach to its subject, its readability, and Cunliffe’s sound scholarship.
The author argues that Washington is entombed in an impersonal legend, in a metaphorical monument designed by many architects through the years. That a figure about whom vast information exists should still remain obscure is an enigma that Cunliffe proceeds to resolve by resurrecting his subject.
Cunliffe discloses Washington’s character by relating the events of his life. It is in his prerevolutionary career that reality can most easily be separated from legend, which is one of its strong appeals to youthful readers. Young Washington, forced to be resourceful and responsible at an early age, is portrayed as he developed from social reticence to poise, from financial insecurity to prosperity. He pursued knowledge beyond his rudimentary education even though he lacked the intellectuality of others whom he encountered in his career. Pursuing military ambitions in his twenties, he demonstrated prowess and courage while also being subject to errors arising from pugnacity. Denied preferment by British officers because of his Colonial status, he disenchantedly resigned the militia. He married a rich young widow,...
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British scholar Cunliffe studied, did research, and taught on both sides of the Atlantic. In this book, he objectively presents a thoroughly knowledgeable portrait of Washington that was generally well received by critics and historians upon its publication. His contribution to Washington literature continues to be recognized.
For young adult readers, the impact of Cunliffe’s biography lies in its sincere revelation of the individual as well as the myth, although the two ultimately became conjoined. Washington is portrayed by Cunliffe as a good rather than a saintly figure, a competent rather than a great soldier, an honestly administrative rather than a brilliant diplomat, and a prudently conserving rather than a radical reformer. Yet there stands forth overall a figure of exceptional character, and praiseworthy reputation reflecting the eighteenth century classical virtue of gentlemanly restraint. The author shows that attempts to disparage Washington have largely failed, submerged by a country’s regard of him not only as its savior but also as the classical hero who is concomitantly a symbol of the nation itself. Compressing much into a short book and playing down the adulatory tradition while clearly establishing its basis, Cunliffe clarifies the figure of Washington in a broad historical perspective, creating an eminently readable work for the young general reader or scholar.