Edward Lengel is editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington and a professor at the University of Virginia and is, therefore, one particularly qualified to speak on the subject of the “real” versus the “imagined” George Washington. And in “Inventing George Washington” he does just that, beginning with the mythology that sprang up around the still-living General and President, and following the various epochs of myth-making (and debunking) that followed, right up until the present day.
As the title suggests, this is not a book about the life of George Washington, per se: it is about the various lives he has lived in American popular imagination, and the motivations of the individuals behind the many imagined events and traits of character that have attached themselves (with varying degrees of stickiness) to the man.
It’s a fascinating journey, and Lengel is an enthusiastic guide. His attitude is one you would expect of an editor of historical documents (he will not attach his stamp of approval to any tale that is not supported by hard evidence), but he has a sense of self-awareness and humanity that keep this book from being purely pedantic. (The fact that he does not answer every myth with a diatribe on what HE knows to be FACTUAL is, I think, a mark of real restraint).
The result is a book that says as much about American popular culture, politics and religious marketing as it does about our first President.
As an example of the mythology around Washington, consider the well-known image of the General kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge (a tale, it should be noted, that first entered circulation shortly after his death), and how it was put to use:
“In life, Washington’s beliefs had been ambiguous — he avoided referring to Jesus Christ in his letters, did not kneel during prayer, and often dodged out of church before communion. But the eulogists would not admit any doubt: “Let deists, atheists, and infidels of every description reflect on this,” thundered the Reverend Samuel G. Bishop of Pittsfield, New Hampshire: “the brave, the great, good Washington, under God the savior of his country, was not ashamed to acknowledge and adore a greater Savior, whom they despise and reject.” (P-13)
Ambiguity, it would seem, turns out to be a sort of watchword when it comes to understanding Washington. Here was a man who was keenly aware of his role not just to his country, but to history. And though he took great pains to be sure that every scrap of his official papers were preserved (pains that were insufficient to keep his ancestors from scattering them to the winds, however!), he seems to have been a man who was circumspect in what he revealed of his inner feelings and beliefs while he lived. It’s almost as if he sought to be the kind of figure a nation could look back upon in crisis by being just non-specific enough of an individual that the many could adapt his image to their own immediate needs. That he held secrets and specific beliefs, there can be little doubt. That he wanted to share them with the rest of us, well, that’s a different story!
Once again, we are offered a great little read from the one person we would wish to write on such a subject.