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Who Was Washington?

June 2024
5min read

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.”

President Washington was, if anything, more resolutely remote than even General Washington had been, and it is a credit to Smith’s skill at digging out telling details that the reader comes away with a vivid sense of what it must have been like for this proud champion of efficiency and self-discipline to preside over the untried government of a raw and resolutely fractious republic whose survival was by no means guaranteed. The non-Indian population of the United States numbered just four million when Washington was sworn in as President. The infantry at his command comprised only “one thousand two hundred and sixteen noncommissioned officers, privates and Musicians.” The employees of the executive branch who answered to Washington were fewer than the slaves who plowed his Virginia fields.

All the events of his Presidency are here: the successful struggles to establish the Bank of the United States and choose the site for a new capital and the unsuccessful one to end the bitter quarreling between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton; the delicate, largely thankless diplomatic maneuvering that kept the rivalry between France and Britain from swallowing up his fledgling country; and Washington’s own soldierly willingness to take up arms again, even against his fellow citizens, that kept the whiskey rebels from flouting the authority of his fledgling government.

Through it all Washington kept whatever fears and frustrations he felt mostly to himself. “In a government which depends so much on its first stages on public opinion,” he said, “much circumspection is still necessary for those who are engaged in its administration.” In the spring of 1791, for example, he took off on a nineteen-hundred-mile Presidential Progress through the South, enduring hour after jarring, dusty hour in a carriage drawn by two white horses, accepting with as much dignity as he could the tributes of the crowds that came out to cheer the “first treasure of America” at every crossroads—kicking up still more dust in the process—and attending tedious formal dinners, at all of which he offered the same safely nonpartisan toast: “The town we are in, prosperity to its inhabitants.” His innermost feelings were confined to his diary: “It is not easy to say on which road—the one I went or the one I came—the entertainment is most indifferent—but with truth it may be added that both are bad.”

President Washington was even more remote than General Washington had been, yet he was more vulnerable and human too.

Uniformly courteous in public, in private he was an astringent, unsentimental judge of men. Faced with choosing a new Army commander after Indians under Little Turtle had routed the spectacularly incompetent general Arthur St. Clair in the Ohio Valley in 1791, he privately ticked off the failings of several of his old comrades-in-arms. Benjamin Lincoln was “sober, honest and brave…but infirm.” Baron von Steuben was still a skilled drillmaster but “impetuous in his temper, ambitious and a foreigner.” He finally settled on Anthony Wayne, whose reputation for stubborn daring evidently outweighed Washington’s unflattering summary of his character: “More active and enterprising than judicious and cautious. No economist it is feared. Open to flattery, vain, easily imposed upon, and liable to be drawn into scrapes. Too indulgent (the effect perhaps of some of the causes just mentioned) to his officers and men. Whether sober, or a little addicted to the bottle, I know not.” Wayne’s appointment was one of Washington’s wisest: three years later, at Fallen Timbers, he overwhelmed Little Turtle’s warriors and opened up much of the Northwest Territory to settlement.

In the end, Smith argues, it is as much what Washington did not do in the office he virtually created as what he did that would have ensured his primary place in our history, even if he had never strapped on a sword: “He did not take sides in the Continental wars that swept Europe as a result of France’s revolutionary experiment, buying precious time for the United States to evolve a sense of nationhood. He did not organize a king’s party, nor regard himself as a democratically chosen monarch…nor designate his vice president to serve as a kind of prime minister, nor turn the secretary of the treasury into an American chancellor of the exchequer, all of which he might easily have done. Most important of all, by voluntarily relinquishing office at the end of two terms, Washington forced a world more accustomed to Caesars than Cincinnatus to revise its definition of greatness.”

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