Saturday, May 28, 2011

Inventing George Washington by Edward G. Lengel

If there’s one constant in American politics today, it’s that the meaning and intent of the Founding Fathers is as relevant today as it was over two hundred years ago. Possibly no group of human beings has ever been so analyzed as the powerful Pantheon of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, and company, save perhaps Abraham Lincoln. No matter how many books are written about these men, it seems we can never truly agree on what they are. Into that fray comes Inventing George Washington, a book that attempts not to define Washington for what he was—but for what he was not.

It’s a novel approach, one that was initially taken by people called “debunkers” (working on the same theory as World War One de-licers), but is handled here in a far more subtle manner than the firebrands of the 1920s whose goal was seemingly to crash every historical figure off their pedestal—particularly the Father of our Country. In Lengal’s hands, the story of Washington after his death is not so much an attempt to make him less of a person but to show that despite being the most recognizable of all presidents, he is also the one that, pretty much from the day of his death in 1799, America knows the least about.

Starting from the early days, Lengel shows that Washington the man was outdone by Washington the myth almost from the get-go. Due to careless handling of his papers and even calculated destruction, it was difficult for any biographer to get a complete picture of the man. What to do? Start making things up. The more honorable the story (The cherry tree, anyone?), the better. Because this became such a cottage industry, everyone from religious zealots to those with political axes to grind would alter the history of Washington to fit their needs, a practice that goes on to this day. Lengel calmly walks through this minefield, pointing out the flaws as he goes.

Was Washington a prude? Not according to the records of the day. Was he a womanizer? That’s wrong, too, says Lengel, showing that extremes are generally wrong in any history of the first president. The same holds for multiple stories of his prayers/baptisms/conversions at Valley Forge, all of which have no historical basis in fact but are often repeated from grade school to grad school. Washington was neither a fervent Christian nor a Deist, showing both sides of this debate to be dead in the water. Similarly, he did love Martha, contrary to conventional wisdom, and was not above flirting, no matter how hard the Victorian prudes tried to paint him as above cares of the flesh.

Some stories included here are already pretty healthily debunked, such as the idea he had a slave love child or the Betsy Ross legend, but others really shocked me. The Quaker Spy story is just that—a story. I admit I was crushed. There’s also more evidence to support a lukewarm Christianity than I’ve seen in the past, though Lengel’s words will not soothe those who feel strongly about the faith of the Founders.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Lengel brings up is that Washington has been exploited for years upon years, and in many cases people prefer the myth to the legend. Everyone from PT Barnum to modern-day psychics have leaned on the power of Washington to make a quick buck, going back to before the days when Washington was even on the diminutive dollar bill. Want proof people prefer story to truth? A completely nonsensical psychic autobiography of Washington outsells many legitimate biographies. Americans know what they like—and it’s not true history.

Working roughly chronologically, Lengel discusses Washington the myth and does his debunking in a mildly sarcastic way, whether it’s to nibble at the edges of popular expectations or to mildly chastise those who are so desperate for a connection to Washington that they believe every Washington slept here story or take family tales for fact. He’s understanding of the need for connection, saving his venom only for the most poisonous or preposterous lies.

As a book, Inventing George Washington is less of a history and more of an un-history, or rather, it’s a history of the kind of inventions Americans are capable of, showing that our penchant for self-deception when it comes to American superiority started from the early days of the Republic and carry on in the words of 2012 presidential candidates. Washington as fact may not be very sexy, but Washington as myth has all the sizzle of a modern day scandal. For a man like Washington, who was very self-conscious, this would be very painful. Luckily for all of us, the one thing we know for sure is that he’s not alive to see it. Those willing to peek under the covers of popular history will definitely find a lot to enjoy in this work. You might even un-learn something!

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