A few years ago, Washington College decided to boost what seemed to be general public apathy about the man for whom the school was named by creating a book prize in his honor.
Compared with presidents who inspired the popular imagination - like Lincoln, Jefferson or the Roosevelts - George Washington was thought a rather indistinct, remote figure. An annual $50,000 might not only stir attention for the first chief executive but also encourage more scholarship about the man.
And what happened when the first George Washington Book Prize was announced last night at Washington's home in Mount Vernon?
It went to a biography of ... Alexander Hamilton.
Not only was Washington not the central subject of the winning book, neither of the other two book finalists was about him, either.
Washington's absence as a finalist seems especially curious when this year's Pulitzer Prize for American history was awarded to a Washington book, David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing. At least two other well-regarded books on Washington were also published last year, one by historian Joseph Ellis, the other by The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach.
In awarding its inaugural Washington Prize to Ron Chernow for his Alexander Hamilton, Washington College helped to underscored the very impression it was trying to dispel: While the first president was one of the most consequential men in American history, he might be having a harder time than ever seizing our interest.
That might be a function of human nature as much as it is a comment on Washington, says Ted Widmer, a historian at the college and the director of its C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
"Washington was calm, brave and charismatic, which was what the country needed at the time," says Widmer, "But history can fasten itself more easily to figures who are less than perfect. Is that because they're easier to relate to as human beings? Probably."
Washington's unshakable decency, sense of honor and mental clarity, both as a military leader and as president, helped stabilize the nation during its roiling infancy, but they can make for less-than-scintillating yarns.
The competition's three judges - all eminent U.S. history scholars - had no obligation to choose a Washington book. The rules stipulated only that they select the best book "on Washington, the Revolution, or the early republic," and Widmer says none was encouraged to look to any particular historical figure. Widmer was thrilled with the Chernow selection, he says, for many reasons. "It's a big book," he says of the 818-page biography, "and I mean that in every sense. It restores Hamilton to the place where he belongs, the first rank of the figures of that era."
Hamilton, born illegitimate in the Caribbean, was an orphan who grew up to move to the mainland United States, become Gen. Washington's military aide-de-camp and serve as President Washington's secretary of the Treasury, a position he used to tremendous influence. He was also a principal author of The Federalist Papers, one of America's seminal political documents.
In addition, Widmer says Washington was the sort of figure who might best be understood by comparison with the more volatile temperaments of an era historians say was even more bitterly divided along partisan lines than today's political landscape.
To Chernow, the pair were "two great figures with complementary talents - Washington the outstanding patriot and politician, the man of consummate judgment but hardly an original policy thinker, and Hamilton, who was too opinionated, tactless and indiscreet to be a great politician but was probably the greatest policy-maker in our history."
It's no accident, perhaps, that Hamilton became embroiled in a major sex scandal and was killed in a duel at 49, while history recorded Washington as a rock-steady statesman.
In Chernow's telling, Hamilton hardly saw his mentor as the stiff figure of legend. As a general, Washington made the young Hamilton, a gifted writer, his staff correspondent, but Hamilton pined for the glory and promise of his own battlefield command. He found his boss "moody and temperamental" and picked a fight with him to get away.
Washington "was actually something of an emotional powder keg," Chernow says. "His contemporaries knew how hard it was for him to cultivate that calm."
Valuable as those qualities were, they might never be enough to make Washington as vivid as some of his contemporaries or his presidential brethren. A recent Washington College survey of random Americans showed fewer than ever were familiar with the salient facts of his life. Only 57 percent knew he was the general who led the Continental Army to victory over the British; only about half knew that his wife was named Martha. Just 6 percent ranked him as the greatest American president, placing him seventh - behind Lincoln (20 percent), Bill Clinton (10 percent) and George W. Bush (8 percent), among others.