This post is a review of the book Founding Father by Richard Brookhiser.
For much of America's history, George Washington was treated as something of a demigod. Early biographers like Parson Weems and Chief Justice John Marshall, however different their styles and scholarly standards, wrote in a spirit of patriotic reverence and described a man seemingly without any flaws. In contrast, few Americans today would consider Washington a demigod. Revisionist historians have tended to paint us a figure of an individual who is all too human—a greedy land speculator, a mediocre general, a suggestible politician. But flagging respect for the first President of the United States has a deeper cause than revisionist literature. As Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review, argues in Founding Father, the issue is that people now tend to take American nationhood for granted. Many see American nationhood as an inevitable step in the march of a historical trend which determined democracy or imperialism, enlightenment or patriarchy. Along the way, many seem to have lost sight of the fact that “ideas require men to bring them to earth.”
Richard Brookhiser does not try to revive the Washington cult of the 19th century. Nor does he try to reconstruct and defend every important decision of Washington's career. Brookhiser presents a “moral biography” of the first President - an analysis of the extraordinary but altogether human traits that made him so indispensable to the early republic. Aiming to write “in the tradition of Plutarch,” whose accounts of noble Greeks and Romans were a formative influence on the American Founders themselves, Brookhiser tries to give us a portrait that will continue to instruct us today—a task at which he succeeds, but not completely.
The first part of Founding Father assumes the form of a historical narrative. Brookhiser reminds us that Washington personally dominated American public life for nearly a quarter-century, a longer period than any other figure in our history. As Commander of the Continental Army from 1775 until peace with Britain was concluded in 1783, as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and as chief executive from 1789 to 1797, he oversaw the long struggle from independence to nationhood. Entering the political realm as a celebrated soldier, he left as the most admired of civilians—no mean feat in an age equally capable of producing an autocrat like Napolean Bonaparte.
Washington's awareness of his own problematic role in establishing a republican political order provides the central theme of Brookhiser's biographical sketch. Time and again, Washington turned away from opportunities for personal aggrandizement to demonstrate his devotion to popular, civilian rule. The episodes are familiar: his resignation of command immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Paris; his rebukes to those who whispered to him suggestively of monarchy; his reluctance to reenter public life after his military career; and, finally, his insistence on leaving the presidency after his second term. “Washington's last service to his country,” Brookhiser rightly observes, “was to stop serving.” This is something that many contemporary leaders would do well to emulate - especially the leaders in the Middle-East, who continue to cling on desperately to power, at tremendous cost to their population.
What, then, was the character of the man behind these deeds? This question lies at the heart of Founding Father, and Brookhiser begins to answer it in an unusual but illuminating way: he describes the raw elements with which nature endowed Washington—most particularly, great physical stature and an irascible temper. Washington displayed the former to striking effect in such activities as riding and dancing; the latter he directed into the channels of courage and spirited determination. By means of both, he learned how to make the impact necessary to lead.
As for Washington's “second” nature—the habits and precepts that guided his conduct—Brookhiser properly rejects the notion, favored by many students of the founding era, that he was some kind of self-styled Roman throwback, a Cato in cocked hat and breeches. Washington no doubt did draw inspiration from the public-spiritedness and self-control of the ancients, but their virtues were too “inhumane” to be his standard. A liberal republic required an ethic of a different sort.
Washington found this ethic, Brookhiser plausibly claims, in the “Rules of Civility,” a long set of principles that for years instructed English schoolboys. Some of these rules, which Washington copied out in his own hand as a young man, have not aged well: “Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others”; “Spit not in the fire.” But many more reflect the timeless demands of social intercourse in a regime based on the idea of political equality: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those who are present”; “Artificers and persons of low degree” should be treated “with affability and courtesy, without arrogance.” For Washington, Brookhiser notes, politeness was “the first form of politics.”
Brookhiser does not shy away from examining some of the more troubling aspects of Washington's character and principles. He finds nothing objectionable, for example, in Washington's seeming obsession with reputation and role-playing. If we today “worry about our authenticity—about whether our presentation reflects who we ‘really’ are”—18th-century Americans attended more to the outside story and were less avid to drive putty knives between the outer and inner man. . . . Every man had a character to maintain; every man was a character actor.”
Yet is concentration on the “outside story,” on the opinions of others, always so admirable a quality in a leader, even a democratic one? One senses a forerunner of today's political spin control in Washington's query to an adviser shortly before the Constitutional Convention: “Inform me confidentially what the public expectation is on this head, that is, whether I will, or ought to be there.” A similar concern for popular standing can be seen at other key points in Washington's career, from his earliest days of command in the French and Indian War to his acceptance of the presidency. In the end, of course, Washington usually did what he considered right rather than what was sure to win applause. Though a firm advocate of freedom of conscience, Washington had difficulty describing an affirmative role for religion in American life. He neither inspired personal religious devotion in others nor successfully attached the national cause to some transcendent purpose, as Lincoln would later do. Instead, one often detects in him the cold instrumentalism of the Enlightenment, as in the following passage from the Farewell Address:
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them."
The book closes with Brookhiser's reflection on Washington's status as “the father” of the country. Brookhiser urges us to emulate America's first President—to curb and direct our passions, to treat our fellow citizens with civility and respect, and, above all, to perform the duties of free government no less energetically than we claim its rights. While many have engaged themselves critiquing and deconstructing Washington, and ascribing every conceivable injustice to him and his contemporaries, it is truly refreshing to be reminded what the life of George Washington still has to teach us.