What is there left to write about George Washington? What insights can be gleaned about a man who has been the subject of centuries of biographies—many devoted to bringing the “flesh and blood” Washington to life—yet who still seems, in his “icy majesty,” to stand above and apart from us?
Some have attempted to cut him down to size by portraying him as considerably less than a god, a privileged white landowner who advanced his career on the backs of his slaves’ labor, blundered as a military leader, and failed to protect Native Americans as their Great White Father. Others have deplored his explosions of anger and thin-skinned obsession with reputation, and accused him of twisting every action of his public life into a self-serving maneuver to gain power and fame.
Yet there’s no honest way to destroy George Washington’s legacy as the indispensable American. For a quarter-century, he was the living symbol of a new kind of country—the man who rallied his people to keep fighting in the revolution as its oft-defeated yet unconquerable military leader; the most important force behind the creation of a strong and sustainable federal government; and the leader who cemented in place constitutional liberty and the rule of law as the nation’s first and greatest president. His noble stature, immense courage, willingness to relinquish power, tenacity, pragmatism, and love of freedom were critical to the establishment of the world’s greatest and most powerful republic, one that survived a catastrophic civil war over slavery and, ultimately, turned aside dire threats from totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
Those who find it hard to see America in the light of its value to humanity may wish we would forget such Dead White Males. But those who desire to prolong our freedom will want to teach themselves and their children about this man—who was, in fact, flesh and blood: what he sacrificed, what he achieved, and what that means for all of us.
James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography and Ron Chernow’s 900-page Washington: A Life are certainly among the best works. For those with less time to devote, John Rhodehamel now offers this brief and balanced, yet stirring, look at Washington’s life in under 400 pages.
Rhodehamel, former archivist of Mount Vernon and editor of the Library of America’s collection of Washington’s writings, hits the high points well, not only of Washington’s life but of recent approaches to it. This is not a hagiography.
He was a proud but insecure man who could confuse dissent with disloyalty. [Yet he was also] the central figure in a radical revolution that aimed at nothing less than the transformation of Western civilization.
In a few deft strokes, a memorable portrait is painted of the audacious young Washington and his fierce ambition to succeed, in part by cultivating powerful friends in colonial Virginia, in part by plunging into the cold and deadly wilderness to make a name for himself as a soldier. He was a magnet for fame, and a passage from a letter he wrote to his brother—”I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound”—made it into the London newspapers, earning the disdainful attention of George II. Driven by his sense of destiny, Washington survived a massacre of British forces under General Edward Braddock, writing that “the miraculous care of Providence . . . protected me beyond all human expectation.” That miraculous care would reappear throughout his life.
Still, he had clashed with civilian authorities and made poor decisions in his twenties, and the British authorities repeatedly demonstrated disdain for a mere colonial. These experiences worked a profound change in him, helping him to grasp the importance of political skills in military leadership. When it came time to break from Great Britain (1775-83), Rhodehamel writes, “General Washington played the role of the soldier-statesman as successfully as any figure in world history ever has. His political genius evoked feelings of awe in his contemporaries.”
In our age, Washington strikes many as “conservative,” but he was an early, radical advocate for independence and liberty for individuals, realizing that appeals to Britain for justice were futile. (“Washington had scores to settle with the British Empire,” Rhodehamel observes.) The general stubbornly persisted in the cause, even when ill-equipped and all but abandoned by the country. During the brutal winter at Valley Forge (1777-78), 2,500 of his men died of cold, starvation, and disease. Yet he continued to obey Congress.
It was one measure of his extraordinary self-control that this combative, fearless man allowed himself to be governed by prudence and his devotion to the republican ideal of the subordination of military to civilian authority.
When the war was over, he voluntarily relinquished power, a crucial step for the young republic.
After the war, Washington championed the cause of securing freedom through a strong and sustainable government: “With our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved,” he presciently declared. Though suffering painful rheumatism and the loss of teeth that made it embarrassing to speak, he emerged from retirement to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention—and of the United States under its new Constitution, brilliantly creating the model for a strong but constrained chief executive. His voluntary departure after two terms “confirmed the nation’s republican character.”
It’s hard, of course, to find a more glaring contrast than between the austere and restrained first president of the United States and the businessman-entertainer who currently fills the office. Yet it was George Washington who created a national edifice so strong that it could endure electoral shifts—even as jarring as the latest one—without cracking.
Edward Achorn, editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author, most recently, of The Summer of Beer
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard