On George Washington and the Essentials

“Monday Musings” for Monday October 28, 2013

Volume III, No, 41/135

Gilbert_Stuart,_George_Washington_(Lansdowne_portrait,_1796)

Books About George Washington, The Father of Our Country

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

(In the tumult of government shutdown, economic uncertainties and America’s waning credibility on the world stage, I thought it would be reassuring and soothing to go back home, go back to the  house of the country’s father, the father of our country and have a visit with him.  Here are some of the books about the Great patriarch and the first President of the United State of America, George Washington)

In spite of the rivers of ink spilled on and about America’s founding fathers, the pantheon of these towering and majestic intellects remains relatively untouched. For example, few know George Washington’s reading list. Few know the favorite books that Thomas Jefferson found page turner and to which he referred repeatedly. Few know the pocket edition of which author was the constant companion of Benjamin Franklin, the scientist, the politician, the diplomat, the bon vivant and the ladies’ man of Paris. Few know where Patrick Henry learned his gift of oratory and rhetoric of which Thomas Jefferson was jealous. I am proposing some young entrepreneur PhD candidate in English literature to collect the names of all America’s Founding Fathers, research their preference in reading, theater, literature, the arts, music, composers, theology, and science, and give us a 24 volume each 1000 pages collection to satisfy the PhD dissertation. After all, Eusebius of Pamphili, Josephus, accomplished this exact feat, writing 24 volumes biography of Moses and Jesus in Aramaic…

In the pages of WCP over the past 15 years, we have made periodic and sporadic efforts to answer some of these issues for the curious. The article on “Thomas Jefferson, the Fiddler” published two years ago, brought us enormous volume of mail. The response to the article on what GW liked in plays and books, published four years ago, reflected enormous interest in the topic and almost overpowered our inbox capacity. This article is a focus on who and what biographers and historians have written about the Founding Father and CEO of the American enterprise, the Captain of America’s soul, and the righteous George Washington.

The latest biography of George Washington is by Ronald Chernow, the American biographer who is the author of Alexander Hamilton, The House of Morgan, and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., among other works. Author Ron Chernow, born in 1949, is a Yale and Oxford educated lad. He studied English literature. He is now a freelance author. Washington: A Life, the Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40.00, is remarkable in that it examines best Washington’s personality and instincts. In my opinion, this is the best book ever written about Washington in one volume. The purpose of this essay is not to review Chernow’s book, but to offer our readers a fairly complete compendium of books written about GW from 1800 until now.

The efforts of Douglas Southall Freeman and James Thomas Flexner (yes, he was related to Abraham Flexner of 1910 who revamped American Medicine- see the October issue, WCP-) have offered a multivolume work on GW which brought the Pulitzer Prize to both authors. Flexner has a one-volume, Washington: The Indispensable Man, which is a must read if one wishes to know how GW’s mind worked.

We all know the Washington myth of cutting down the cherry tree perpetrated by Parson Weem’s 1800 tale. Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of GW is the closest work to a psychobiographical account of GW factually reporting on GW’s hot-tempered youth, his narcissistic and self-adulating tendencies, gradually being replaced with concerns for his country. Flexner tried to outdo Freeman in his four volume work written 1965 to 1972. However, Freeman’s seven volumes (1948-1957) collected work remains unsurpassed. Both authors completely debunk all myths about GW, and offer the reader a naked and brilliant account of a vulnerable human being. Reading these volumes gives one the feeling that GW was not only a General, a leader, a father figure, but he also had a theological sense of himself.  He demonstrated how the powers of introspection and self-examination bring about abundant possibilities, hope, and redemption to our lives. This is very much consonant with Pauline theology in the New Testament.  GW lived a life that clearly represents transformation of a self-serving narcissist to a public serving altruist. After all, is this not the primary purpose of all world religions?

There are other GW’s biographers: Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency, a rather comparatively short biography, 320 pages (reviewed for our readers in 2004), and Richard Brookhiser’s elegiac and elegant Founding Father in 1996.  The author called it a “moral biography” in the tradition of what some reviewers such as Carl Rollyson call “a biography in the tradition of Plutarch”.  Mr. Rollyson opines that “Washington dominated the national scene far longer than Abraham Lincoln and FDR, and scholars have been loath to take on the whole man within the covers of a single volume…” Mr. Chernow ought to be congratulated to have triumphantly accomplished the feat in one 960 page volume.  We have other books about GW:  the admirable, if truncated, 2005 book by Edward Lingel’s General George Washington and 2006 Peter R. Henrique’s thematic Realistic Visionary.  Having critically read and studied all these books about the father of our country, in my view the Freeman and Flexner volumes are the most comprehensive and intellectually stimulating of all.

Finally, for students of George Washington, and for that matter, for every person who proclaims to be an American, from school children to the Justices of the US Supreme Court, it is not only desirable but necessary to know and if not memorize George Washington’s Farewell Address, along with the other three essential components of what is known as America’s political literature. They are the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the 85 articles comprising the Federalist Papers.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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