Chasing George, Part One

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It has all been said before – George Washington, THE Founding Father, is a virtually unknown entity to modern Americans, who are far more aware of his shadow (as cast by Parson Weemes, John Marshall, and a host of others) then they are of the real man.

We hate the Parson Weems story about Washington chopping at (not down!) the cherry tree and then fessing up to it, not because it cannot be true – after all, far more implausible occurrences have happened then a child admitting to a wrong-doing – but because it is cloying and syrupy and annoying, kind of like the Facebook friend who feels it necessary to fill you in on each and every activity of his child.

Beyond all that, ignoring the question of whether or not the incident actually occurred, the story is illustrative of nothing, since Washington not only failed to live a life without telling a lie, but unquestionably told some real whoppers throughout.

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During their lives, our Founders were people.  Then, both during and after their lives, they become something else as well – entities, creations made for one purpose or another, usually, though not always, that of state-craft.  The people at Monticello combat and/or diminish the story of Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, not so much because they fear the impact it may have on his historical legacy, but because they fear the impact it could have on their cash-flow.  They fear the Sally Hemmings story blowing up for the same reason Samsung fears its newest phone blowing up – it may dissuade people from giving them their money.  Biographical history, in other words, almost always has an agenda behind its telling and its point of view.  The agenda might be as crass as money, as basic as patriotism, or as submerged as the author’s own parental feelings.  At the end of the day, as Lin-Manuel writes in his staggeringly successful musical Hamilton, the historical figure himself has no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells his story.”

George Washington’s death was followed by a series of hagiographies, which were then followed by a series of books designed to expose the hagiographies (and Washington), leaving us with tattered remains of the man.  Who is George Washington?  I recently listened to a two- hour podcast portentously titled “The Truth About George Washington,” in which the speaker relayed just about every story of Washington that placed him in a bad light.  The episode was clearly one-sided.  And yet, just about everything the man said was not only accurate, but, in its way, fair. He did not delve into some of the rumors and unproven allegations that exist, he stuck with what could be proven or is generally accepted.  By the end of the broadcast, you would come to the conclusion that Washington was an arrogant, lying, two-faced, slave-owning soldier of limited competence.

The question is, is that all that George Washington was?  Or is there more to it?

This battle has long raged.  His aggrandizers portray Washington as the most moral of children and men.  “An affectionate mother…impress[ed] those principles of religion and virtue on his tender mind, which constituted the solid basis of a character that was maintained throughout all the trying vicissitudes of an eventful life,[2]” wrote John Marshall, in a sentence with as many inaccuracies as vowels.  Then we have W.E. Woodward, one of the earliest of the full-throttle “debunkers” of the Washington legend – “George Washington came of a family that must be called undistinguished, unless a persistent mediocrity, enduring many generations, is in itself a distinction…They were sane and dull people, these Washingtons, and excessively normal…They are immune to the fructifying quality of genius.”[3]

Who is George Washington?  Let’s start with a few basic facts – he was indispensable to the earning of independence, and the creation of our Constitutional government.   He was not only the first President; he was the man who defined the office.  He was the general of the army that defeated the largest empire on earth.  He was unanimously selected to be that general; unanimously elected to lead the Constitutional Convention; and, twice, unanimously elected President of the United States.  He resigned after two terms and was held in such reverence among the people that nobody violated that precedent until Franklin Roosevelt did in 1940.

He was also a slaveholder who married for money after years of flirting surreptitiously with his friend’s and benefactor’s wife.  He was also, as Thomas A. Lewis notes, “an author and embodiment of two of the most grievous flaws in our American society:  our collective contempt for other races, and our exploitation of land as a commodity of trade.”  He was a man whose military career began with a massacre of people who may have been diplomats, which was followed by a cover-up.

He was also, as Lighthorse Harry Lee put it, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  He was, in other words, capable of securing great gifts for humanity at the same time he could cause it the occasional black eye.  Or, as the Tom Baker personification of Dr. Who put it when discussing human beings in general, he was capable of great good, and great evil.

But I do not want to discuss this in terms of good or evil.  At the end of a surreal “slave tour” at Mount Vernon, a tour which described slavery as a veritable walk down the park, the docent concluded by telling us, “He’s one of the good guys.”

My goal here is not to determine whether or not Washington was one of the good guys.  That’s for everyone to decide in their own hearts and minds.  What I want to do is perhaps more simple – I want to get to know the guy.  I want to try to understand him.  When I had quit my job as an attorney after twenty-three years, it was with the goal of getting to know the Founders better.  After one year of working every day for Bow Tie Tours, a non-profit organization that shares a love and knowledge of early American history with people of all ages and backgrounds, I feel like I have gotten to know many of the Founders in a much more intimate light.

But Washington is tough.  He’s private and he’s convoluted.  He has left a lot for the imagination, which may be part of the reason that the biographies about him vary so greatly.

In search of the real George Washington, I have decided to travel to him, since he is clearly not going to be able to come to me.  I feel that when attempting the complex exercise of historical time-travelling, it is important to actually move, rather than to sit at a desk reading letters and books.  The letters and books are important, but so is going to the places where your character lived.  Looking at the trees Washington may have climbed, the house where he lived, the sky as it looked to him as a young boy.  In search of Washington, then, I have put together a series of trips – to where he was born, to where he lived, to where he died.  I will see the room where he accepted the nomination to be the General of all of the Colonies, and then I will see the room where he relinquished that command.  I will see the battlefield that marked the nadir of his life, where he was defeated and pushed into signing an admission of his own culpability; and I will see the place that marked his greatest triumph, the defeat of the British Empire at Yorktown.  I will see rooms where he slept, rooms where he ate, rooms where he danced.

I will go wherever it takes to get the true story, the whole story, in terms of understanding this man.  And I will start in the beginning.  Whereas endings are often quite different, most beginnings are the same.  As Dickens puts it in the naming of the first chapter of David Copperfield:  “I am born.”

 

 

[1] Molyneux, Stefan, The Truth About George Washington, Freedomain Radio Podcasts, FDR Podcasts.com.

[2] Marshall, John, The Life of George Washington, (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis) 2000, 1838., page 3.

[3] Woodward, W.E., George Washington:  The Image and the Man (Blue Ribbon Books, New York) 1926, page 9.

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