Who was the Real George Washington
"There is properly no history; only biography," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.1
If that is true of the general run of mankind, it is particularly applicable to George Washington. The story of his life is the story of the founding of America. His was the dominant personality in three of the most critical events in that founding: the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and the first national administration. Had he not served as America's leader in those three events, all three would likely have failed. And America as we know it today would not exist.
The Opinions of His Contemporaries
Washington's contributions were clear to his contemporaries. He was called "The Father of His Country" as early as 1779, in Francis Bailey's Lancaster Almanac.2 Those who knew him well joined in the praise. Benjamin Rush, a Congressman who served with Washington, wrote in 1775, "General Washington...seems to be one of those illustrious heroes whom Providence raises up once in three or four hundred years to save a nation from ruin....There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side."3
Francis Hopkinson, one of Washington's military aides, wrote: "To him the title of Excellency is applied with particular propriety. He is the best and greatest man the world ever knew....He retreats like a General, and attacks like a Hero. Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he had been worshipped as a God."4
And Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1782, long before the Constitutional Convention and Washington's presidency, "[Washington's] memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries, whose name shall triumph over time, and will in future ages assume its just station among the most celebrated worthies of the world.''5
High Regard for Washington Continues Today
That high regard for Washington-and fascination with his life-has continued through the years, as reflected in the numerous studies done by both historians and journalists. A survey of the current Books in Print, which lists all available books from major publishers in the United States, reveals that more than one hundred studies of Washington's life and place in history are presently in print.6 Literally thousands more, now out of print, can still be found on the shelves of libraries across the country .7 Added to that total are the many collections of Washington's writings, which come in the aggregate to more than eighty volumes.
Washington has been scrutinized and analyzed from every direction. Authors and scholars have looked at his private life, his religious life, his skills as a farmer, his military accomplishments, his ability as President. Complete volumes have been devoted to subjects as diverse as Washington's childhood, foreign policy, and role in forming the Constitution. Some researchers have written for very special interests, producing books on Washington's chinaware, his involvement in Masonry, and the music in his family. Other volumes discuss Washington and money, Washington and the law, Washington and the theatre, Washington as an employer and importer of labor, and Washington's pedigree.
Accusations Against Washington
Some have delighted in digging for dirty refuse in the rubble of history, seeking for ways to discredit our first President. Some have implied that Washington was improperly enamored of his best friend's wife, Sally Fairfax. Others have claimed that General Washington padded his Revolutionary War expense account, enriching himself while his country suffered impending bankruptcy.
Washington could swear a violent blue streak, they say, Washington took pleasure in the charms at his slave quarters. Washington was stern, humorless, ice cold. Such are the claims of some authors who take more pains to seek (or manufacture) Washington's foibles and failures than they take to learn who he really was.
The Truth About Washington
In the face of the truth, such accusations turn to dust. As biographer James Thomas Flexner put it, "Most of the brickbats now being thrown at Washington are figments of the modern imagination."8
Who was the real George Washington? What was he really like? To find the answers to those questions, we have gone to the best source available, to the person who knew him best: Washington himself. Rather than analyze and dissect the man until nothing remains but faulty interpretations, we have told his story in simple terms, allowing him the privilege to present himself throughout.
The evidence leaves no doubt that Washington the man is entirely worthy of Washington the myth. Douglas Southall Freeman concluded the same after some nine years spent in researching and writing six volumes on Washington's life. In an introduction to the sixth volume, Dumas Malone wrote: "By the slow and painstaking processes of scholarship [Freeman] examined, verified, and preserved a major legend ....
Some may have wondered then [during Washington's life] and some may wonder now if the man could have been as irreproachable, as inflexibly just, as dedicated a patriot as he seemed to be. The verdict of the scrupulous historian after years of unremitting inquiry is that, as nearly as can be in human life, the legend and the man were identical."9
Historian James Flexner, who wrote five volumes on Washington's life, came to a similar conclusion. Washington, he wrote, truly was "a great and good man." He added, "In all history, few men who possessed unassailable power have used that power so gently and self-effacingly for what their best instincts told them was the welfare of their neighbors and all mankind."10
A Complete Presentation of Washington
In order to fully present both the life and thought of George Washington, we have divided this volume [The Real George Washington] into two parts. Part I consists of the biography, and Part II contains selected quotations from Washington's writings and speeches. Together they provide a more meaningful and more complete portrait of George Washington. In both sections the passages quoted from Washington are carefully documented from original sources.
This book is published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, an educational foundation dedicated to teaching Americans the principles of freedom in the tradition of our Founding Fathers.
The political, economic, and social challenges currently facing the United States have sparked an urgent and widespread search for "modern solutions." Ironically, the solutions have been readily available for more than two hundred years in the writings of our Founding Fathers. A careful analysis of recent U.S. history reveals that virtually every serious problem now confronting American society can be traced to a departure from the sound principles taught by these great statesmen. The citizen of today who turns to the Founders' writings is often surprised by their timeless relevance-and reminded that the self-evident truths which made us the freest and most prosperous country on earth can, with renewed attention, be put back to work again.
This excerpt was taken from the book The Real George Washington.
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