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Sunday, September 1, 1996

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington

Washington Was a Man of Both Ideas and Action

Dr. Carson, a contributing editor of The Freeman, has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. America in Gridlock, 1985-1995, the sixth volume in his Basic History of the United States, will be published later this year.

Near the close of this book, the author quotes John Marshall speaking to the House of Representatives shortly after Washington’s death as saying: “Our WASHINGTON is no more! the hero . . . lives now only in his own great actions, and in the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people.” Richard Brookhiser is concerned that Washington no longer lives in our hearts and our affections. “He is in our textbooks and our wallets,” Brookhiser writes, “but not our hearts.” This book is an effort to correct that situation, not by “humanizing” him down to the Oprah level, say, but by drawing our conception up to the level of his remarkable achievements. In the main, he has done a good job of that.

This is not a full-fledged biography, but more nearly a series of essays on the general subject of George Washington. It focuses upon Washington’s career, his character, and his place in the minds and hearts of Americans. Some of his emphases I especially liked and some I had not heard or thought of before. For example, his liking for the theater had never been brought out to me before, nor that he subscribed to ten newspapers. Washington was strong, courageous, brave, a good listener, a leader, had great dignity, was conscious of doing the honorable thing, and a patriot.

Many of the events of his life I had known before reading this book but it was good to read of them again, told, as they are, with zest and flair. For instance, Brookhiser gives the account of how insistent Washington was on secrecy at the Constitutional Convention. Someone had dropped a copy of some resolutions being considered where outsiders could have taken it. Washington retrieved the copy, lectured the Convention on the necessity for secrecy, then threw the paper down on the table, and invited whoever owned it to take it. The delegate was apparently so in awe of Washington that he never dared to claim it.

It is good to emphasize, too, as Brookhiser does, that Washington was a man of ideas as well as of action. I remember how impressed I was when I noticed Washington’s library. He had nearly a thousand volumes—not in Jefferson’s league, but then whose was? Not only was he familiar with the well-traveled ideas of his time, he was given to asking those about him for their opinions and understanding, such as the need to restrain government lest it trample individual rights. He listened and learned much. There was a balance to his ideas that set him apart from most thinkers.

The weakest section of the book is the one dealing with “The Founding Father.” That Washington was father of his country is a metaphor which captures some of the truth and much of my feelings about the matter. He did indeed tenaciously lead the country through the war which effected our separation from Britain and independence of her. He chaired the Constitutional Convention that produced the document on which our union stands. And he piloted us safely through the perilous and tenuous early years of the Republic. But the metaphor will not bear close and extensive analysis; it falls from so much weight.

But the whole is a worthy testament to the greatness of Washington. Anyone who is inclined with so many in this misbegotten age to believe that Washington is just a dead white male who kept slaves should read of his principled refusal to sell any of his slaves “down the river,” and the provisions he made for freeing those who were able to earn their own keep, and providing a fund to take care of those too old or infirm to provide for themselves. He was a man of his time, as all of us tend to be even in ways of which we are not aware, but he was much better than many of his contemporaries.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.