Who Was Washington?

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Gilbert Stuart flattered himself that the prominent men and women whose portraits were his fortune admired him almost as much for his good manners and genial gossip as for his skilled artist’s hand. And so, when he was warned that George Washington did not much like small talk, he was not unduly worried.

“Now, sir,” the artist said confidently as he began to sketch his most celebrated subject, “you must let one forget that you are General Washington and that I am Mr. Stuart.”

The President’s blue eyes flashed in their large sockets—the largest, Stuart said later, he’d ever tried to paint. “Mr. Stuart need never feel the need of forgetting who he is,” his sitter said, “or who General Washington is.”

Exactly who General Washington was will always remain something of a mystery. Like Abraham Lincoln, like Franklin Roosevelt, he kept his own counsel, had no confidants. “With me,” he said toward the end of his life, “it has always been a maxim rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions.”

Confronted by his towering but enigmatic figure, unable to imagine that Washington had ever been anything but the grave statesman of his mature years or that his life, like theirs, might ever have contained within it even a moment of conflict or tension or doubt, his first biographers entombed him with virtues. Justice John Marshall’s five volumes, complained John Adams, constituted not a life so much as “a Mausoleum, one hundred feet square at the base and two hundred feet high.” “Every hero at last becomes a bore,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the relentless admiration of Washington’s early biographers ensured a later generation’s gleeful debunking. In recent years writers have found a sniggering satisfaction in suggesting that Washington fiddled his expense accounts, was overly fond of Madeira, and coveted his neighbor’s wife.

Even when the work of James T. Flexner, Washington’s best and most balanced biographer, was adapted for an eight-hour CBS mini-series several years back, the central issue of the first few hours was not whether an enormously wealthy Virginia planter with a lot to lose would risk it all and throw in his lot with the Revolution but whether he could resist the temptation to sleep with Sally Fairfax.

Earlier this season the documentary “George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King,” shown on the American Experience series on PBS, made a more serious attempt to get at the real man. The novelist William Martin proved an amiable guide, gazing down upon the spot in the Pennsylvania wilderness where, in 1754, the young surveyor-soldier set upon forty sleeping French soldiers—and thereby set off the French and Indian War—or staring up at the colossal Wall Street statue of Washington that marks the spot where he first swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution that might never have been enacted had he not been willing to lend his sanction by serving as President. Had more been made of Martin’s search for the authentic Washington, and less given over to interviews with chatty historians who all seemed to have signed a pact promising to call their subject George, the program might have been more satisfying.

Still, it outlined again for a new generation the story of Washington’s slow transformation from a young man very much on the make—obsessed with fame, ready to snatch every acre of Western land on which he could get his hands, willing to lobby shamelessly for the British army commission he was sure his loyal soldiering deserved—into a universally admired soldier who, having outlasted the enemy and made a mighty Revolution, refused to betray the republican principles that underlay it by allowing his officers to seize power on his behalf. “The grand irony of his life,” said Martin at the end of the film, “which in the beginning had been based on acquisition, was that he did not secure the reputation he sought until he gave something up—power. In the process, Washington ensured the survival of the world’s first modern democracy. He was the Commander-in-Chief that the Revolutionaries had expected him to be but, more than that, he was the man who would not be king.”

Washington’s most recent biographer, Richard Norton Smith, has made a kind of career of humanizing starchy heroes. His fine first book, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times (Simon & Schuster, 1982), was sympathetic to its subject but so evenhanded that all but its most implacably Democratic readers were forced to admit that there had been genuine qualities to admire in that stiffest of Republican candidates, and his second biography, An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (High Plains Publishing Co., Inc., Wyoming, 1990), did the same thing for the Great Engineer, whose presidential library in West Branch, Iowa, Smith now directs.

In Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95), he has chosen to focus on the presidential years when, Smith writes, beset by his own advancing years and unable to prevent the wildfire spread of “faction” that he feared would one day destroy all he had worked so hard to build, Washington “appears most human because most vulnerable.”