The Triumph Of Myth

The Argument

October 31, 2004|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

The past 10 years or so have produced a remarkable number of redefining books on the giants who played roles in the nation's birth. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall and, most recently, Alexander Hamilton all have been the subjects of one or more works. Even the inveterate schemer Aaron Burr has been celebrated. Many of these books were best sellers, suggesting a deep yearning of Americans to reconnect to their most fundamental values.

In toto, these works form a rich tapestry of the nation's early history, and they all have one thing in common: No matter who the principal subject may be, the enigmatic figure of George Washington always looms in the background like a colossus. And yet in many respects, he remains the ultimate "American Sphinx" -- far more so than Jefferson, the subject of Joseph Ellis' 1997 biographic study, which bore that title.

Why has there been no major new biography of the peerless man who was present at the creation? The answer, partly, is that there's simply nothing left to discover. A more subtle reason may be that mythic Washington has so overwhelmed the human Washington that he will be forever enshrouded in myth and mystery. It is almost as if he belongs not just among the great statesmen of history but more in the company of the founders of the great religions.

For all he became, Washington's beginnings were unremarkable. He was born into a family of middle-class tobacco farmers who had settled on the Virginia side of the Potomac River in the 17th century. His father died when George was 11, and his mother was cold and distant. He showed an early inclination toward military service but soon recognized that this was no career for an ambitious young man in Colonial times. Lacking much formal education, he went into real estate, so to speak. He married a rich widow and began to expand the family land holdings with such avaricious zeal that his high-born Virginia contemporaries, the Randolphs, probably looked upon him as a parvenu.

He was not among the foremost fomenters of the American Revolution, but when it came to armed rebellion, he emerged as the best suited of a poor lot to command the ragtag military of the upstart colonies. Mythology aside, Washington was anything but a brilliant general; indeed, he made many mistakes, and prevailed largely because the British generals were such a feckless pack. The outcome of the war for independence left him with such iconic status that, after the disastrous decade of Confederation, he became the unanimous choice to be the first president of the new nation. In two terms his main achievement -- of incalculable import -- was simply holding the new nation together and keeping Jefferson and Hamilton from starting a civil war.

And, after eight years, he did something unheard of in human history: He surrendered power. Probably more has been made of this aspect of Washington's life than it deserves. While he almost certainly could have become a king, he really didn't want the job and besides, he had no family members upon whom he could bestow inherited royalty. So instead he left a remarkable document -- his Farewell Address (not really an address at all but simply an article in a newspaper of the day), which laid out a practical course for his successors. The message was so compelling that even his ideological adversaries -- like Thomas Jefferson, who had taken to spreading gossip that Washington in his second term had grown senile -- could not avoid following it.

By the time of his death in 1799 (of what now would be called acute tonsillitis), he was so aware of his immense worshipful status, unsought though it may have been, that he felt almost a duty to sublimate the man to the monument that he had become. At his direction, his wife, Martha, destroyed their voluminous correspondence -- thus forever depriving historians of a mother lode of personal history such as that which so greatly enriched David McCullough's biography of John Adams and his redoubtable wife, Abigail. Even Washington's diaries and letters deal largely with weather reports and crop-planting schedules.

Washington's legion of idolaters lost no time in sealing his historic reputation. His first biographer, "Parson" M.L. Weems, rushed into print with a work that doesn't even qualify as hagiography; rather, it was pure historical fiction. Out of it came such silly but enduring legends as the "I-cannot-tell-a-lie" cherry-tree tale -- never mind that Washington lied with alacrity when it came to protecting the precarious fledgling nation.

(An aside: Journalist / historian Eric Alter-man this month published an incisive new book titled When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, Viking, 434 pages, $25.95).)

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