Eaton’s purpose for writing this exhaustive biography—replete with fascinating insights into the social and political processes of Colonial life, especially in Virginia, into military affairs, and into the monumental problems besetting the new nation if it was to survive its infancy—is implied in her title, Leader by Destiny. She determined to reveal the reasons Washington deserves to be considered the “father” of his country, and to have earned the eulogy of Harry Lee: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen!” Natural ambition aside, no one could have foreseen the singular role that Washington would play in the dramatic years of America’s struggle to emerge from its colonial dependence.
Eaton extracted the concept of destiny from a passionate letter that Washington wrote at the age of twenty-six from the western territory while he was waiting to recapture Fort Duquesne from French troops. Renouncing Sally Fairfax, the wife of his friend and neighbor, his “one great love” until he met his wife-to-be, he stated that “there is a Destiny which has control of our actions, not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of Human Nature.” This emotional dismissal of all of his previous affection for Fairfax in favor of the new duties that he was to face became the clue to Eaton’s depiction of Washington’s life story, in its inevitable movement toward his destiny. She ends chapter 9 in 1772, just before Washington’s fate called him to national service, by foreshadowing the next three years as the period when “he rose with quiet sureness to the stature of his destiny.”
Thus, in chapter 2, she can describe him as “illiterate” and...
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Eaton’s biography was named a Newbery Medal Honor Book in 1939. When the work appeared in 1938, it represented a highly readable yet detailed account of Washington’s life, using all the papers, letters, journals, and memoirs available to her. Her lively dramatic style brought Washington to life as a flesh-and-blood character, an imperfect man of his class and time, as she notes on several occasions. She makes little of the issue of slavery, for example, even resorting to a dialogue sentence from his personal servant, Sam—“De post come, Marse Washington!”—near the end of the story. One of Washington’s final actions before dying is to motion this same servant to be seated, implying that he had stood by Washington’s bed through the night.
Eaton’s ability to dramatize believably the smallest scenes so that they create a feeling for the individual and the times lends credibility to her narrative and stimulates the imaginations of her readers. That Washington is described as fond of children, devoting inordinate time to caring for his wife’s children by her former marriage and adopting his own grandchildren when his stepson dies, adds to the appeal that this American political figure makes to younger readers. Even the extended discussion of his infatuation with Sally Fairfax serves to show that he was only a shy young man who responded to the sensitive understanding that she seemed to offer him, along with direct help to his career and encouragement to fulfill his destiny.
Eaton’s biography takes its place among the balanced treatments of historical figures, which are careful about details, quote liberally from primary sources, and try to get behind the public figure to the private individual. Her account brings Washington down to earth and adds to his deserved respect.