Tag Archives: George Washington

On George Washington and the Essentials

“Monday Musings” for Monday October 28, 2013

Volume III, No, 41/135

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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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On the Pride or Shame of Heritage

Monday Musings” for February 25, 2013

Volume III. No. 8/112

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Sulgrave Manor, a Source of Pride or Shame

By Assad Meymandi, MD PhD, DLFAPA*

Around my house, we are purists. We celebrate and observe Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, and pay homage to the father of our country on his natal anniversary on February 22. Today’s “Monday Musings” was written on July 4, 1973 after a visit to Sulgrave Manor in Northampton, England, and has been reprinted every year since.

Sulgrave, a hamlet, population 58, houses one of the most significant pieces of American and British history, unbeknownst to many Americans and certainly British. Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington, the father of America, lies 14 miles southwest Northampton, a busy city of 120,000. No, you won’t find it in the Northampton city directory, nor does it appear on the county or “Shire” map. The Chamber of Commerce of Northampton politely said “We do not know, Sir” to my telephone inquiry as to the whereabouts of Sulgrave Manor. No place in London, including the eager to please Bureau of Tourism, acknowledged its existence. Like an in- house secret shrouded in mystery, it eluded my persuasive curiosity.

My host, Dr. Michael O’Brooke, a consultant psychiatrist at Saint Andrews Hospital in Northampton, almost changed the subject when I asked about Sulgrave. Somehow we ended up talking about the newly discovered oil off the Britain’s coast. Finally I pinpointed him, and demanded an answer. With his genuine English wit he snapped “Oh, yes, I will have my driver to take you there…” He made it clear in his elegant old Anglo-Saxon, non-verbal but piercing way, that he did not wish to discuss the matter any further.

I rode through the bustling streets of Northampton. It belied that it was July 4th. No picnic, no American flags and no Happy Birthday! Total oblivion of the importance of America’s birthday enveloped this industrial city which lies 70 miles southwest of London.

Finally we arrived at Sulgrave. It was a bright and sunny afternoon. A fairly short, thin gentleman whose bushy eyebrow literally covered his eyes, with graying full head of hair combed straight back giving ample space for a high forehead, looking like a character just stepped out of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, greeted me with a simple but eloquent Churchillian deep voice: “Good afternoon! I am Mr. David Robbins, your guide.” We talked a bit. I felt like he was genuinely happy to see me breaking his loneliness, somehow reminding me of the British version of the Maytag repairman commercial.

The layout of Sulgrave Manor was elegant. Eight courtyards, a vegetable garden, and immaculately kept manicured yards and shrubs took me back 350 years. Foxglove of several colors graced all sidewalks. A British and an American flag were flying on the sides of the building. Mr. Robbins gave me a quizzical look upon finding that I might write up the Sulgrave experience for my fellow Americans. He briefly disappeared, soon to reappear with brilliantly printed brochure.  He wanted to be sure that the facts were accurately reported…As Mr. Robbins and the brochure have it: the main part of the house was built of stone and he made sure I understood that it was the original structure, and not like the wooden colonial houses which were burnt and re-constructed—a mere replica—this house was built by Lawrence Washington in 1560. General George Washington was the 7th descendant of Lawrence Washington, who incidentally, was the mayor of Northampton in 1539 and again in 1545. Mr. Robbins took me around the building with utmost care, explaining that the perpetual Board of Trustees of the manor consists of the British Ambassador to US and the American Ambassador to England. The manor and the grounds belong to both countries. The cost of maintenance, conservation and purchase of pieces of land are bourn directly by both countries.

There was an air of ambivalence inundated by moments of awkwardness as Mr. Robbins’ basic loyalty to his own country and crown saw George Washington as a rebellious rash soldier with poor manners who committed an act of treason by fathering America, along with the pride that he finally acknowledged for the American experience, offered twinges of cultural/patriotic schizophrenia. Here I stood, on a 4th of July, my country’s birthday, proud to be an American and concerned about my host’s mixed feelings. I empathically told him that if I were in his place I, too, would be most uncomfortable. There was a sudden glitter in Mr. Robbins’s eyes. After so many years of working there, he had found a person who looked at and talked with him as a person with feelings. He looked me in the eyes and invited me to the afternoon tea. As we were sipping the tea he asked me about my work. “Psychiatrist” I said. “Oh Lord, I should have known not to ask…” he said in reply.

I saw not only the most proudly and secretly kept historical monument in England, but also had made a good friend in Mr. Robbins, the official host/guide of Sulgrave Manor.

Mr. Robbins and I kept in touch.  He was scheduled to come to US for a visit but died of a sudden heart attack in the mid-eighties. He was 80 years old.

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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)

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