Inventing George Washington
America's Founder, in Myth and Memory
By Edward G. Lengel
Harper. 249 pp. $25.99
Sometimes it seems that the Father of Our Country was named Godot, not Washington.
We wait for him to reveal himself, to lend some personal meaning to the foundation of the republic, to somehow keep his appointment with who we are as Americans.
And while we wait, we spin tales about him, which reveal more about ourselves than about George Washington.
Who was Washington? What did he think? What did he do? Surely, if we wait long enough, he will materialize and let us know. For more than two centuries, the nation's writers and historians have been trafficking in such tales, filling books and popular culture with often fantastic confabulations, fibs, dreams, and myths.
From Parson Weems, author of a wildly popular early-19th-century biography of Washington and creator of many Washington "facts," to James Thomas Flexner, author of the mid-20th century's most popular biography, Washington has remained just out of reach, elusive, mutable — a block of stone ready for carving.
He did not chop down a cherry tree and own up to it (per Weems); he did not sleep his way through tidewater boudoirs filled a-bursting with buxom belles (per Woodrow Wilson); he did not even know Betsy Ross, let alone charge her with designing and producing the first flag. Yet the myths persist, comfort food for the national soul.
Edward G. Lengel, professor of history at the University of Virginia and editor-in-chief of the massive Papers of George Washington project (University of Virginia Press), has now plowed into this welter of misstatement and fiction and emerged with a brief and entertaining book that knocks down many of the silliest — and most-loved — Washington fictions.
Inventing George Washington puts the kibosh on much of Parson Weems and his successors — and debunkers — but it does so largely by falling into what I've come to think of as the "documentary fallacy." That is, if it's on paper, it is more trustworthy than not.
This is a particularly nettlesome problem with Washington, who worked tirelessly to protect his image of rectitude. And why shouldn't he? As head of the victorious Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, and first president of the United States, Washington was well aware that he was more of a brand than a person. He achieved national celebrity before there was even a nation. And he meant to maintain an unsullied reputation — for the sake of the new republic and, by the way, also for himself.
What that means — and what Lengel doesn't actually say — is that Washington largely invented himself and maneuvered to ensure that history would view him in a particular way. The general and president demanded that all his official correspondence be preserved. Yet his wife, Martha, destroyed their personal correspondence. We don't know what all was tossed into the Mount Vernon fireplaces. But rest assured that a lot of what Washington did not want to share with the public went up in smoke.
Given the scrubbed nature of the documentary evidence that remains, it seems perilous to lean on it too stoutly. Not surprisingly, though, the editor of the voluminous Washington papers does just that and has managed to produce a text that is anything but dry and papery.
Lengel knows a good story, and many a good story began with Parson Mason Locke Weems — an Anglican minister whose biography of Washington went through several editions from 1800 to 1825.
Here is the source of the cherry-tree myth, the story of an Indian prophecy that Gen. Washington would never die from a bullet, the story of Washington's praying on his knees in the Valley Forge snow, the tale that he rejected efforts to crown him king — and much else. Many of these tales — notably regarding Washington's piety — would be recycled and elaborated again and again through the decades.
Weems' creative text reinforced what the country wanted to believe about its founder: Washington was honest, sober, and pious (with a flair for the dramatic). He was a new man leading a new nation — in short, a myth. The real Washington, largely absent for us even now, was of no actual interest to that new nation — as evidenced by the quick demolition of the President's House in Philadelphia, the nation's first executive mansion, where Washington and his successor John Adams served their presidencies in the last decade of the 18th century.
The house was knocked down in 1832 to make way for some commercial buildings — the real business of the new nation. But the story of the house and what went on there became a matter of considerable public interest and controversy over the last decade. Here is where Washington held nine enslaved Africans, a handful of the 300-plus he ruled over at Mount Vernon. The National Park Service, steward of the house site, barely acknowledged its existence for decades, and when African Americans sought recognition for the enslaved who toiled under the president, the park service resisted, before being ordered by Congress to change course.
What the President's House reveals about Washington is instructive. First, he skirted and then ignored Pennsylvania's abolition law in order to protect his privileges and power as a master. He lied to maintain those privileges, and when one of his enslaved servants escaped, Washington used his position as a public servant to pursue his private chattel.
None of this made it into Weems' effort, nor did it make its way into the park service's mythmaking at Independence Park. Lengel makes no reference to it either, although he does seek to deconstruct the claim that Washington fathered a mulatto child.
Largely because of a strong push from African Americans, however, the story of the President's House has entered public consciousness, lending a bit of reality to public memory of Washington and bringing back to life the stories of those immediately around him, the enslaved. For them, Washington was no absent and mysterious Godot. He was a straightforward slave master.
Unfortunately, as with much of the African American past, little of that long-ago reality was committed to paper, with the exception of bills of sale and "Wanted" ads for escaped slaves. Washington placed his share of such ads, often using someone else's name as agent or straw man. That's rectitude, if no one writes about it.
Stephan Salisbury is The Inquirer's culture writer. His most recent book is "Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland."