The eNotes link provided below provides a useful summary of Marcus Cunliffe’s 1958 biography of George Washington, George Washington: Man and Monument. It would be superfluous to repeat that description of Cunliffe’s book, but there are comments that can add to that summary and provide, perhaps, for a fuller treatment of this thin but colorful biography. George Washington begins with a chronology of its subject’s life. The narrative then begins with a discussion of the monument to Washington on the Mall in the nation’s capital, named, of course, for him. It then provides a fairly straightforward description of Washington’s life, from childhood through his final days at his Mt. Vernon, Virginia, estate. Cunliffe’s book is not iconoclastic – his goal is not to diminish Washington’s legacy – but he doesn’t shy away from illuminating the myths that are intermingled with the facts of the first president’s life. The section on the Washington Monument serves as a launching point for Cunliffe to explore the myths of Washington’s reputation while illuminating the very real and very substantial accomplishments of the man himself. This section is where Cunliffe discusses the ‘myth versus reality’ aspect of Washington’s legacy, and uses the four sides of the monument as metaphors for the different perspectives that accompany the legend:
“The crucial point is that the real merits were enlarged and distorted into unreal attitudes, and that this overblown Washington is the one who occurs immediately to us when his name is mentioned. He might occur in any or all of the following four guises: a) the Copybook Hero; b) the Father of His People; c) the Disinterested Patriot; d) the Revolutionary Leader. These are all guises of the hero figure. In each, Washington is a member of a pantheon; and for each pantheon there is a kind of antipantheon of heroes who fell from grace.”
As Cunliffe proceeds with an in-depth examination of Washington’s life and legend, he is careful to maintain a nuanced approach to his subject. George Washington has been a deified figure in American history, the affection for him even preceding the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, as the following passage attests:
“Babies were being christened after him as early as 1775, and while he was still President, his countrymen paid to see him in waxwork effigy. To his admirers he was ‘godlike Washington,’and his detractors complained to one another that he was looked upon as a ‘demi-god’ whom it was treasonable to criticize.”
George Washington: Man and Monument is a critical examination of its subject, but, given the fact of Cunliffe’s (he died in 1990) British heritage and his reputation for being critical of American policies, one could have logically assumed a more iconoclastic approach, but this is, in the end, a fair treatment of a revered figure. In summarizing Washington’s record as military officer, general of the Army, president of the United States, and senior statesman, Cunliffe provides as reasonable a description as one could hope:
“Yet Washington's is also a deeply satisfying record. Here was a man who did what he was asked to do, and whose very strength resided in a sobriety some took for fatal dullness; who in his own person proved the soundness of America. A good man, not a saint; a competent soldier, not a great one; an honest administrator, not a statesman of genius; a prudent conserver, not a brilliant reformer. But in sum an exceptional figure.”
Cunliffe, like all responsible biographers, had to reconcile the record of this near-mythological figure with the legend that began growing up around him well-before he actually did anything that meritorious. His is a useful and concise biography that contributes to the scholarship on America’s first president without employing revisionist criticism that ignores historical context. Yes, the author notes Washington’s ownership of slaves, and discusses military and political shortcomings when warranted. The flaws, however, are not allowed to overwhelm the far more substantive contributions Washington made to the establishment of a viable political entity known as the United States of America.