In Inventing George Washington, historian Edward G. Lengel shows how the late president and war hero continued to serve his nation on two distinct levels. The public Washington evolved into an eternal symbol as Father of His Country, while the private man remained at the periphery of the national vision—always just out of reach—for successive generations yearning to know him as never before.
Both images, public and private, were vital to perceptions Americans had of their nation and themselves. Yet over time, as Lengel shows, the contrasting and simultaneous urges to deify Washington and to understand him as a man have produced tensions that have played out in every generation. As some exalted him, others sought to bring him down to earth, creating a series of competing mythologies that depicted Washington as every sort of human being imaginable. Inventing George Washington explores these representations, shedding new light on this national emblem, our nation itself, and who we are. (from Amazon)
I had a lot of fun reading Inventing George Washington! I hadn’t realized that some of the things I thought I knew about George Washington were actually false– I suppose I had more faith in my history teachers, that they wouldn’t propagate false stories or lies (although, really, ALL history books have issues with telling the truth). I do remember talking about the cherry tree myth and how it was false, but I don’t remember doing anything else. And poor Martha Washington was completely thrown under the bus in my history classes! (I really need to read a M. Washington biography now, for real.) Anyway, it was a real eye-opener.
My favorite thing about Mr Lengel’s book is how he traces political and ideological changes throughout society, and how those changes affected how people viewed Washington. I found it especially interesting how various politicians and the like twist Washington’s character to push their own agenda. For instance: people that want to legalize pot say that Washington grew and smoked marijuana himself (he did not), people that want to push religion even more into government say that Washington was a Christian (no evidence for that), etc.
It actually makes me feel kinda bad for Washington, especially since he tends to be viewed as a block of stone instead of as a person. It’s very difficult to sympathise with a block of stone, which is probably why people have such an easy time shoving him into their pigeon-holes. Are any of the other “founding fathers” in the same predicament? I don’t think they are– but then, that’s because most of them left a large paper trail that’s still relatively intact. Washington (and Martha) got rid of a lot of his papers, and his stupid relatives got rid of a lot more, so we have less to go on regarding his character, personality, etc. Hence: block of stone.
I went off on a tangent there, I think! But, yes: I enjoyed this book a lot! It covered the Washington myth succinctly and, I assume, accurately. My only complaint is that it didn’t have much in the way of what Washington actually thought or did, it’s just what he didn’t think or didn’t do. Jenny said something about how that might be because Mr Lengel wrote a biography on Washington already, which makes me wonder if this book is sort of like a supplement to that one. Either way, this book has firmly cemented my interest in American Revolution history, which means I’ll probably be tracking down more books on the subject soon!
Read: January 1-3, 2011