Two months ago I reviewed FOUNDING BROTHERS, which touched on key events in the lives of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams. George Washington was covered, but only to the extent of his Farewell Address. This slim paperback, 199 pages, paints a picture of our first president a man who stood out above his contemporaries so far that it is difficult to see the very real human being behind the icon we have turned him into. Brookhiser describes Washington from three perspectives, his career, his character and as “Father of his country.” Each section is complete in its own right, and worth reading. It is not a life history, as are most biographies, but a moral biography, in the tradition of Plutarch. Washington's character, in large measure, formed the ideals of our country, and this volume explains that fact.
I found the last 20 pages of the book most interesting, for it is there that Brookhiser addresses slavery. How did Washington (and others) reconcile the obvious contradictions between that institution and the lofty ideas of the Declaration of Independence? One way, according to Brookhiser, was that Washington simply did not think about the issue, at least until his closing years. Nothing during his term in office forced him to address it, and he ignored it politically. He bought and owned slaves, but he would never sell one unless the slave agreed, and at life's end he freed many of them and provided life grants for those remaining (his estate provided support for some of them as late as 1833). When one of his slaves, Oney Judge, ran away to New Hampshire, he asked an official there to send her back if it could be done quietly; when the official refused, he dropped the matter. It was left, however, to his widow, Martha, to finally release his remaining slaves, in 1800, shortly before her death.
George Washington looms over our country; his ideals (and failings) continue to guide our way. He is much more than an ancient painting of a man with faulty teeth. Most of us have not read about him since high school history class. His story needs to be read in one's adult years. In large measure, he established not only the character of America but also you and I. He deserves not only the title “Father of our Country,” but “father of us all.”