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Louis Untermeyer

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington

By Richard Brookhiser
The Free Press, 230 pp, 1996

National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser has written a sleek yet comprehensive look at George Washington, probably the one historical figure who was indispensable in the creation of the United States.

Brookhiser examines the public life of Washington to glean insights into the private Washington. He starts with the Revolutionary War. Washington, though not the greatest general in the world, didn't have to be. He just needed to be better than the adversary, and that he was. It's true he lost more battles than he won, but he kept the Continental Army together and fighting, a perpetual thorn in the British side. Washington knew that if his army were ever destroyed, the war was lost.

His role in the Constitutional Convention is understated. As leader, he rarely spoke, but his known positions carried great weight among all the delegates. The office of the presidency was fashioned with everyone knowing that he would be the first president.

As president, he served with the proper balance of humility and power. A gracious host, he was protective of the president's powers but yielded powers to Congress that he felt it deserved. As with all his other public offices, he served with honor and dignity.

It's amazing the reverence that the American people held for George Washington at the time. He truly could do no wrong. Even his (very few) critics praised his character and role in the Revolution.

Speaking of character, Brookhiser tells us that Washington, while publicly stern and almost aloof, was warm and generous, and constantly fought to control a bitter temper. Very concerned about his reputation, though not wishing to appear concerned about his reputation, he studied several books about courtesy and politeness, including the "Rules of Civility" written by French Jesuits in 1595. His vision for America involved self-government, western expansion, a national canal, and, of course, liberty.

But that brings up the major caveat for Washington. He owned slaves. Yes, he treated them very well. Yes, he abused them in no way. Yes, he freed them on his death and ordered his estate to take care of all surviving slaves until their deaths. Yes, he disapproved of slavery and was eager to support any plan that abolished it (though he never proposed one himself). Yes, he recognized the inherent hypocrisy in owning other human beings while promoting liberty.

But the fact remains that he owned slaves. Does that make him evil? Does that negate all the truly great accomplishments? I don't think so. It merely shows that he was a great, though flawed, man, no different than anyone else.

But yet he was different, because no one else served his country like Washington. Several times, he left his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in public life, because he felt it was the dutiful, honorable thing to do. He deserves the enduring title of Founding Father.

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