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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

“Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington”, by Richard Brookhiser


230 pages, Free Press, ISBN13: 978-0684822914

Richard Brookhiser, news-magazine editor, columnist, and author, realizes the emotional disconnect between modern Americans and George Washington. While other presidents (Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Lincoln) are more respected because of their emotional condor, George Washington is often thought of as a stone-faced enigma. His resume wouldn't indicate as much: he started the battle that started the French and Indian War; he was a wealthy Virginia farmer; served in the Virginia House of Burgess; he served as the head of the Continental Army; he served as the chairman of the Constitutional Convention; and he served as the first President of the United States. His personal gravitas caused even the greatest men of the Americas (Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Franklin) to stand in awe of him; one speech, powerfully delivered, turned soldiers from a desire to revolt to a desire to see their government succeed; even his enemies in foreign nations (Britain and France) marveled at the man. So, how could modern Americans be so disconnected from George Washington? Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington is a “moral biography, in the tradition of Plutarch”; that is to say, it does not so much examine the life of the subject (what he did), but the mental and emotional makeup of the subject (why he did it). He continues that “a moral biography has two purposes: to explain its subject, and to shape the hearts and minds of those who read it.” So Brookhiser’s lofty goal is to make you a better person by holding up Washington for your examination.

The first (and lengthiest) part of Founding Father is a sketch of Washington’s career. He shows what Washington did during the Revolutionary War, during the Constitutional Convention, and during his Presidency. During this time, the events are given brief, thumbnail treatments, and Washington's motivations are emphasized. The second part examines Washington’s personal character through analyzing his nature, his morals, and the ideas he entertained. The final part examines Washington in the light of fatherhood. How did the fact that he was childless influence him? How did the early death of his father influence him? How did the popular concept that a monarch is father of his country influence Washington? What is the relationship between Washington's morality and the fact that he owned slaves? The overall answer to why Washington is such an enigma to modern Americans (advanced by Brookhiser) is that he was a man of great passion who was prone to lash out in anger, and spent a lifetime counteracting that tendency through emotional distancing (holding his cards close" choosing his words carefully, and being deliberately slow in committing himself). Thus, Washington's constant (and successful) struggle to restrain his passions, his continuous efforts to improve himself (body, mind, and soul), and his genuine love for others makes him an inspirational figure the reader is moved to emulate.

Brookhiser has achieved his unique objectives in a unique way. Although modern readers may be unfamiliar with Roman figures (who were pop culture to the Founders), the way slavery suffocated the souls of both slaves and owners, and the details of 18th Century warfare, Brookhiser does an outstanding job in explaining these foreign concepts in such a way as to make them understandable to the modern reader. Indeed, he does the same for Washington. While Brookhiser’s prose is a joy to read – high-minded yet accessible and witty – he does tend to contrast 18th Century with 20th Century culture in such a way as to distract. He takes subtle digs as President Clinton, expresses confusion at Newt Gingrich, and crudely comments on the fact that science has made intercourse unnecessary for procreation. Further, Brookhiser’s endnotes are sporadic, direct quotes are not properly cited, and other interesting facts are not referenced. The editor would do well to provide better footnotes (not endnotes) in future editions.

In all, this book comes highly recommended. The cultural distance between the late 1700s and early 2000s and the emotional distance Washington established make him an inaccessible man, but Brookhiser accomplishes his goal of making Washington both understandable and inspiring.

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