A slender, interpretation-laden biography of the first president.
George Washington poses certain contradictions for a historian, as the prolific Johnson (Art: A New History, 2003, etc.) very gamely allows. For one thing, though he kept virtually every scrap of paper that came under his eye, carting a sizable archive with him even in the thick of the Revolutionary War, and was as careful a self-chronicler as any subsequent chief executive, Washington was also famously guarded about what he revealed of himself. An august and confident leader, he was also responsible for a disastrous episode that led directly to the worldwide Seven Years War. He despised slavery but did not press the point while he was in a position to do so. Some of his contemporaries—his vice president, John Adams, among them—thought him thick and unpresidential, to which Johnson responds that Washington was a fine actor: he knew how to by-God a lieutenant into submission, and “he liked to play the Old Man card when needed.” He professed a little false modesty, lived a little better than he could afford to and was perhaps a little too wedded to his time’s what’s-in-for-me ethic. But, Johnson writes, Washington was also indisputably if not entirely selflessly devoted to the cause of an independent American nation. Johnson is sometimes unconvincing when he confronts contradiction head-on and attempts to reconcile it; he notes, for instance, that Washington was a deist, disinclined to pay much attention to matters of God (“In his twenty volumes of correspondence there is not a single mention of Christ”), yet asserts, in keeping with his conservative bent, that “the notion that the First Amendment would be twisted into an instrument to prohibit the traditional practices of Christianity would have horrified him”—though probably not to the point, given what we know of him, that Washington would have inserted an “under God” clause into the national pledge.
Slight, sometimes debatable but thoroughly well written: a good starting point for those who want to brush up on why Washington matters all these years later.