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
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.
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
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
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.
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.