Modern intellectuals, with their ignorance and contempt of the past, have condemned Washington to the realm of children’s stories. They have destroyed his reputation with simple statements: he was a rich man, he was a slave holder, he was a womanizer, he was cold and unfeeling, he was nothing more than a figurehead. It was as if the pendulum had swung from nineteenth century adulation to twentieth century skepticism, cynicism, and smugness. This is the attitude that Brookhiser takes head-on. Noting that great statesmen are rare enough, he comments that modern individuals have gone even further, to “believe that they are mythical, like unicorns.”
Brookhiser’s biography is not a “life” of George Washington. That life has been recorded by fine scholars whose books are opened most often only by other scholars. Brookhiser, instead, writes what he calls a “moral biography” in the tradition of Plutarch; and like Plutarch, he organizes his study into discrete sections: Washington’s public actions, his private life, and an assessment of the man and his achievements. Brookhiser intends his book to have an impact on the public appreciation of the man who seems to have been first placed upon a pedestal, then neglected, and finally despised. There is nothing the modern age needs as much as an authentic hero, and few men and women in all of history, if any, fulfill the role better than George Washington.
Nothing came easily to Washington. When he was named commander in chief of the Continental Army, his officers were inexperienced, his men undisciplined. Time after time the troops were outmaneuvered and outfought—when Washington could get them to stand and fight long enough to be beaten. When he presided over the Constitutional Convention, the delegates were badly divided. When he became president, there was less administrative tradition and experience than there were theories about the nature of government and of men, and he faced an immediate crisis in the wars of the French Revolution. Had America been a nation of saints, anybody could have been the Founding Father. Among the three million Americans then living, however, there was but one Washington. He was the indispensable man.
Yet what made him indispensable? Brookhiser posits three characteristics. First, there was his physical appearance. In an era of short men and poor medical knowledge, Washington was tall, healthy, and vigorous. To his natural strength he added perfect posture, self-control, and studied dignity. When he walked among his officers, nobody had to ask who was in command; when he rode a horse, he was the model of control and grace; when he danced, everyone marveled at the balance of talent and training. Strong? The width of the Rappahannock may vary, but the height of the Natural Bridge in the Shenandoah Valley remains at 215 feet. One cannot encourage anyone to attempt to duplicate Washington’s having thrown a rock up to it, but experienced baseball players might look up at it and wonder if he would not have made a marvelous center fielder.
Second and third were his ideas on morality and government—ideas which were not as far apart as his contemporaries (and ours) wished us to believe, and, therefore, have to be discussed together. Underneath everything lay Washington’s desire for a good reputation. Some acts were simply dishonorable, some bad manners, and others merely stupid. A gentleman who wanted respect avoided all three as best he could. The preventives were called honesty and courage, courtesy and civility, and the combination of reading, intelligent observation, and forethought. One avoided thoughtless words and promises by saying little, drinking less, and by an unwavering politeness to friends and enemies alike. Such behavior was not easy for Washington, for he was a sensitive man who possessed a fiery temper, and he had an exquisite vocabulary of unprintable words which could be effectively employed on the proper occasions—all the more reason for him to exercise his famous self-control.
Washington had the big man’s self-confidence, the easy laugh, the consciousness of always being on display, but he was not disturbed by the public intrusions into his everyday life. He enjoyed company, was an active sportsman, and a conscientious manager. It helped that he was reared an aristocrat, with an awareness of the importance of social life, a thorough knowledge of proper manners, and an appropriate stock of small talk. These virtues too often mislead modern readers to conclude that he was shallow. An athlete’s grace, a monarch’s charm, a politician’s readiness for any situation make the difficult seem simple, the deepest fords easy to cross—Washington possessed all these traits.
Washington’s political ideas have become platitudes, so commonplace...
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