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Washington as the White Knight

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

George Washington, By Nathaniel Wright Stephenson and Waldo Hilary Dunn. New York: Oxford University Press. Two volumes. $10.00.

Many of the qualities which establish the greatness of George Washington are well known. His honesty, balance, practical common sense, and unselfishness are qualities which are established and have been emphasized by all of his biographers. In popular imagination his position as the greatest American properly has never been challenged. Yet Washington has not fared well in a literary way. There is about him a coldness, a reticence of character, and a lack of intellectual originality which make the task of his biographer difficult. Even the spectacular events in his career do not provide the writer with sufficient opportunities to offset the difficulties. Probably because of this we have better biographies of other Americans, better from both the literary and scholarly points of view, than we have of Washington. In fact, despite the great number of biographies of Washington, there is yet no completely satisfactory one.

In some respects the most recent biography of Washington contributes to our understanding of him. The late Nathaniel Wright Stephenson devoted twenty-five years of his life to this work; and since his death in 1935 it has been completed by his colleague, Waldo Hilary Dunn of Scripps College, California. The principal contribution made by this biography is that it provides in more than a thousand pages an exhaustive survey of most of the material concerning Washington. Nevertheless, the work is not free from errors. For example, it neglects the recent authoritative biography of Steuben by John M. Palmer, and still presents the German general as a member of the nobility. Other errors of fact might be cited, but the number is no greater than might be expected in a work of this length. Furthermore, because many points concerning Washington are cleared up with an admirable precision of scholarship, allowance should be made, especially since the chief author did not live to revise his work.

In interpretation there is one definite contribution. Washington is set against a background of eighteenth century life among the planter aristocracy in Virginia. Rut the authors go too far, presenting as aristocratic an interpretation of colonial life as learned historians have ever written and picturing colonial Americans as the counterpart of the eighteenth century English squirearchy and nobility. Washington himself is called “the young nobleman”! The term “gentleman” averages at least one appearance per page. The Revolution is often presented as though it were a struggle which would have graced the War of the Roses.

The dominant trait in Washington’s character, the biographers state, was his strong temper, originally ungovernable. This is termed “the berserk.” Washington’s struggle to govern this strong emotion molded his character into the balanced temperament of his later career. Such an interpretation is not unreasonable, but upon the hundredth appearance of the word “berserk” the reader is in danger of going that way himself. On the other hand, although there is much evidence to show that more than a mere friendship existed between Washington and Sally Fairfax, this is definitely denied by the authors. In fact, his relationship with women is treated as being so knightly in manner as to be markedly unrealistic.

The basic objection to the work, however, is its general narrowness of interpretation. A woefully distorted picture is presented in two particulars. First, there is no real attempt to present an adequate portrayal of contemporary figures. The simple device is adopted of dismissing anyone who ever disagreed with Washington as either a visionary, a fool, a knave, a scoundrel, a drunkard, or a demagogue.

One may take his choice, but all the dissidents come under one or another of these categories, from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams down to the local militia officers with whom Washington disagreed in his first campaigns before the Revolution. Only Alexander Hamilton escapes this treatment. When he quarreled with Washington in 1780, Hamilton’s conduct is described as exhibiting “innate pettiness.” On the other hand, when Hamilton is in agreement with Washington and in opposition to Jefferson, Hamilton exhibits “dignity and restraint,” while Jefferson is at fault. One wonders if Hamilton has changed or if it is not simply that the authors apply a universal formula: in all disputes to which Washington is a party, Washington is right and his opponents wrong.

The second basic criticism is that in their anxiety to present Washington as an aristocrat and a friend of commerce, Stephenson and Dunn exhibit marked antipathy to the forces of popular government. This is carried to such extremes that the causes of the American Revolution are hopelessly obscured, as are Washington’s contributions to popular government. The authors assure us: “Revolution in old Virginia when the magnates were in control was a stately performance, like an affair of honor in the true eighteenth century spirit, a deadly earnestness being quite consistent with the most scrupulous observance of form.” In incident after incident the marked bias of the authors is demonstrated. The Declaration of Independence is dismissed with one paragraph, and there is no mention of the principles upon which it is based. Thomas Paine, though Washington had his “Crisis” read to his whole army, is treated in only the most cursory manner. It is difficult to believe that, as the writers assert, none but gentlemen were appointed as officers, when one remembers such figures as George Rogers Clark, Israel Putnam, and Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Roys. The chapter on Valley Forge is entitled “The Dictator,” the important thing being, as here presented, that “it is doubtful whether he was ever again so genuinely the man of the moment . . . the faint mut-terings of Congress counted for nothing.” Congress is dismissed as “those hysterical legislators . . . [who] made absurd appointments or gave absurd advice.”

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is treated correctly as a “counter-revolution” against democratic tendencies. But the conservative character of even this body is overemphasized. Such a captious attitude makes the authors interpret the administrations of Washington and that of Adams in a markedly pro-Hamiltonian vein. Adams opposed war against France in 1798-1799 because “war would probably mean increasing influence for Hamilton, additional glory for Washington, and diminishing reputation for Adams. . . . The thing for Adams to do, therefore, was to prevent war.” Adams receives scant praise for the peace because “the division and ultimate defeat of the Federalist party was the price which he paid for his courageous though impolitic action.” Apparently a statesman would have fought a war to keep his party in power.

Despite the merits of this work, it is not the definitive life of Washington. In completeness and in scholarship it is the best yet written, but in literary merit, as well as in interpretation of the man and the period, it is surpassed by Irving’s and Rupert Hughes’s works, even considering Hughes’s original overly critical attitude toward Washington. The belief of the authors is that the development of American history is a perversion of the original principle of an “aristocratic republic” on which our government was founded. This “Washington” definitely belongs to the more orthodox interpretations (even going beyond them in political conservatism) rather than to the “critical” school of W. E. Woodward or the first volume of Hughes. One can only hope that before long American historical scholarship will produce that balanced, sympathetic, and understanding interpretation that Washington deserves.


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