Washington's humanity, patriotism, personal ambition emerge in biographies

March 07, 1993|By Bruce Clayton


Richard Norton Smith.

Houghton Mifflin.

399 pages. $24.95.


Thomas A. Lewis.


296 pages. $27.50

He is the best- and least-known of all American heroes. Was the "Father of Our Country," America's first president, a man or a monument? Who's the person lurking behind that patrician staring soberly from Gilbert Stuart's well-known portrait? Surely that somber face, that protruding jaw, was chiseled from marble or granite. Washington's contemporaries -- his lieutenants, really seem more in tune with today's emotions: the visionary thinker Thomas Jefferson; the brilliant schemer Alexander Hamilton; even the austere man of duty, John Adams. No one ever said they never told a lie.

Truth is, a great deal is known about Washington. Historians have beavered away unearthing material and disproving many of the myths perpetrated by Parson Weems' adulatory and hugely successful biography published soon after Washington's death in 1800.

After immortalizing Robert E. Lee, the indefatigable Douglas Southall Freeman turned to another fellow Virginian and, beginning in the 1940s, brought forth seven majestic volumes on Washington. Freeman, clenching his fist at Washington's debunkers of the 1920s, expertly marshaled facts and humanized the man. But he skimped on perspective. That, James Thomas Flexner, seeking to make Washington appealing to the liberal 1960s, corrected in four stout volumes. The mighty labors of Freeman and Flexner are available between single covers, but the best short course has been Marcus Cunliffe's "Washington: Man and Monument" (1959).

Richard Norton Smith's "Patriarch: George Washington and the New Nation," is very much a book for the 1990s. His scope is not the daunting canvas of yet another giant biography, but Washington's presidency and brief retirement. Yet Mr. Smith, a very stylish writer, treats these years as an old-fashioned biographer, ambling leisurely from issue to issue, personality to personality, sometimes appearing to be moving day by day with his hero.

Yes, hero. Mr. Smith, director of the Herbert Hoover Library, author of a book on Hoover and a fine life of Thomas E. Dewey, admires Washington immensely. He sees in him qualities of reasoned conservatism: patriotism, personal rectitude, duty to country, civic virtue, social responsibility and ambition to do well and good. In Mr. Smith's view, Washington's carefully cultivated virtues served the man well and saved the new nation.

Throughout, Mr. Smith builds imaginatively on Freeman's and others' prodigious labors. He dips generously into Washington's diaries and letters and his contemporaries' writings. Copious quotations capture the flavor of the times, as does Mr. Smith's skill at catching a major figure in a line or anecdote. The story is told with verve and excitement.

Mr. Smith's lively prose makes the reader feel a part of the times. His description of the decimating fever that hit Philadelphia in 1791 -- site of the national government while "Federal City" was being planned -- is historical writing at its finest. Philadelphians of high or low degree attempting to flee to Baltimore were turned back unless they could produce a valid health certificate. Posted militia stood at the ready to enforce the order.

Better than any previous writer, Mr. Smith captures Washington the man. Washington, the slave-owning squire who alone among the Virginia Founding Fathers freed his slaves, was a reticent public man who valued conduct, not rhetoric. Mr. Smith writes: "If he lusted after anything, it was glory, self-sufficiency, and an acknowledged position among his aristocratic role models."

That lust, as Thomas A. Lewis underscores in "For King and Country," a fast-paced account of young Washington's strivings, began as early as 1748. He was a strapping lad of 16, learning to be a surveyor and dreaming of making his name (and his fortune) as a soldier. He was already an engine of ambition (to borrow a description of Lincoln), cultivating successful men and women, and puffing himself whenever possible.

Mr. Lewis, a seasoned writer and editor of Civil War magazine, narrates Washington's story to 1760, the era of the French and Indian Wars. These were frustrating years for the future president as he struggled to convert the rag-tag Virginia militia into a fighting force, to win a commission in the British army, and to gain an important command. He failed in each attempt -- and barely averted disaster in 1754 in his only major command, a defense of Fort Necessity in Great Meadows, Va.

Mr. Lewis' book, while very good reading, is a bit puzzling. His title is "For King and Country," yet his Washington is driven by "a secret, personal agenda" of self-interest and "public acclaim." Mr. Lewis is ostensibly writing biography, but Washington frequently disappears. Many pages are given over to re-creating battles and military matters in which Washington was at best peripheral. Military buffs will find this book rewarding, but others seeking the exact nature of Washington's "maturing" will be disappointed.

But taken along with Richard Norton Smith's "Patriarch," Washington emerges as a man, as well as a monument.

Dr. Clayton is Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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