New Assessments of George Washington Reject the Plaster Saint

Probably what has deterred me from more curiosity about George Washington is that he has so often been portrayed as a plaster saint rather than a real live human with feet of clay. One cannot really appreciate his greatness without first recognizing his perceived faults. His flaws bring him down to earth, to real life. My favorite portrayal of him was by Ian Kahn in the AMC series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”

gwturn

George Washington talking to the ghost of his brother Lawrence at Valley Forge. (Lawrence died of TB in 1752.)

History for Dummies had a good summary of Washington’s character flaws:

“He wasn’t a military genius, and he lost a lot more than he won on the battlefield. In fact, his greatest military gifts were in organizing retreats and avoiding devastating losses. He had no discernable sense of humor and was a snob when it came to mixing with what he considered the lower classes.

“He also had a terrible temper. At one point, he was so angry with the lack of discipline and acts of cowardice in the American army that he unsuccessfully asked Congress to increase the allowable number of lashes for punishing soldiers from 39 to 500. Once he was so angry at a subordinate, he broke his personal rule against swearing.”

“…He wasn’t particularly handsome — his teeth were bad, and he wasn’t proud of his hippopotamus ivory and gold dentures, so he seldom smiled….

“His bosses in Congress were often indecisive, quarrelsome, and indifferent….

“…He was incredibly lucky: In one battle, Washington rode unexpectedly into a group of British soldiers, most of whom fired at him at short range. They all missed.

The First of Men: A Life of George Washington, by John Ferling notes:
“Certain number of his letters as a young man read as if they were written by “a pompous martinet and a whining, petulant brat.”

“Aaron Burr found him “a boring, colorless person.”

“As president, he often believed the worst about individual officials. Ferling concludes that Washington’s personality and temperament were those of “a self-centered and self-absorbed man, one who since youth had exhibited a fragile self-esteem.”

Several retrospectives as reported in The Washington Post reject the portrayals of Washington as a plaster saint.

  • Everyone Loved George Washington, Until He Became President. By Gillian Brockell, a writer for The Post’s history blog, Retropolis: the Past Rediscovered. By the time he left the presidency in 1787, he was quite unpopular, caught between the hyper-partisanship of the two emerging political parties, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans or anti-federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson. Washington was excoriated by the partisan press, which did not fact-check. The Democratic-Republicans in his administration largely abandoned him in his second term.
  • She quotes from historian Alexis Coe’s book, “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.” The first president did not take sides in the war between Britain and France, but did negotiate a treaty with Britain, which was very unpopular with the public. Meanwhile, the French ambassador went on a speaking tour, whipping up support for France, Coe wrote, quoting a letter from John Adams observing that the French ambassador incited “ten thousand people in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threaten[ing] to drag Washington out of his House, and effect a Revolution in the Government.” Washington also became the only president to take up arms against his own citizens, when he called the Pennsylvania militia to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Thomas Paine accused Washington of lacking principles. John Adams accused him of being illiterate and unlearned. Andrew Jackson, a freshman congressman, disdained him.
  • Coe wrote “Five Myths About George Washington” for The Post. No, he wasn’t a great military general. He didn’t wear a wig. He didn’t chop down his father’s cherry tree. He could actually tell lies. He didn’t free his slaves in his will.
  • His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was not illiterate, crude and unloving. She may have seemed severe. She “has not fared well at the hands of her famous son’s biographers,” wrote Marjoleine Kars in The Post. “While early admirers of the first president depicted her as deeply spiritual and self-denying, by the mid-20th century she was portrayed as complaining, cold and covetous. Eager to uncover the real Mary, Martha Saxton, an emerita historian at Amherst College who has written biographies of Louisa May Alcott and Jayne Mansfield, set out to paint a more true-to-life portrait.” Saxton is the author of The Widow Washington. Interestingly, her mother — George’s grandmother — was “probably was an indentured servant from England, like 80 percent of all free women who immigrated to the Chesapeake at that time,” the 1600s. ” In Saxton’s able hands, Mary Washington’s story vividly illuminates the role white women played in the creation and transmission of wealth in early America, the frictions that patriarchal inheritance created between mothers and sons, and the tremendous price paid by the enslaved people who made much of Virginia’s wealth possible.”
  • In Brockell’s review of Coe’s book, she notes that Coe is the first of only three women to write a biography of Washington, and that many male biographers of the nation’s first president have romanticized him, showing a lack of interest in aspects of his life other than his looming physical presence or dominance, his military endeavors, a lack of interest in anything “outside of the ‘great man’ history and mythologies we tell about our nation.”
  • Did Washington carry on with his first love Mary Philipse decades later? CBS Sunday Morning: “Author and WCBS-TV anchor Mary Calvi says her research uncovered details about the first love of George Washington’s life, the heiress Mary Philipse, one of the wealthiest women in the colonies, and how their relationship may not have ended once each of them was married to others. Jim Axelrod reports on the story behind Calvi’s historical novel, “Dear George, Dear Mary,” about the first president’s first love, and with famed Washington scholar historian Richard Brookhiser about the first president’s reputation.”
  • Renowned presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin takes on George Washington in a three-part mini-series for the History Channel narrated by Jeff Daniels. “Resilience and humility and empathy” were trademarks of Washington’s character, according to Goodwin.
  • The worst July 4th Washington ever had, and how it led to a new nation, by Gillian Brockell. July 4th, 1854, Washington, in his early twenties, was stuck in a humiliating surrender to the French at the poorly located Fort Necessity, PA, which started the French and Indian War, or Seven Years War, which led to the Revolutionary War. “If Washington hadn’t screwed up royally at Fort Necessity, we might not be grilling hot dogs and running around with sparklers this Fourth of July,” Brockell writes.
  • Franklin and Washington: The Founding Partnership by Edward J. Larson is out in 2020. Walter Isaacson in a review for The Post  points out that they were indispensable because “each made more friends than rivals, unlike Hamilton and Jefferson and Adams. Larson laudably tries to counter the tendency of historians, especially biographers, to focus on individuals rather than teams.” He identifies “three great projects that Franklin and Washington worked on together, or at least in parallel. The first was in forging a unified army out of a ragtag collection of state militias.” The second was the alliance with France. “Their third endeavor together was serving as the two lions at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.”

More about George Washington from The Washington Post:

CBS Sunday Morning: “Through eight grueling years of the Revolutionary War, and another eight as the first President of the United States, George Washington was sustained by a dream, of the day he would return to Mount Vernon, his beloved plantation high above the Potomac River, where at 65 years old he aspired to a peaceful retirement as a farmer. But that’s not quite how it turned out. His post-presidency was filled with controversy, intrigue, and personal torment. CBS News chief Washington correspondent Chip Reid visits Mount Vernon, and talks with Jonathan Horn, author of “Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle.”

George Washington, age 67, died of bloodletting and torturous treatments:

Dec. 14, 1799: The excruciating final hours of President George Washington.

 

 

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