One of the more difficult challenges I’ve faced as I’ve continued my long-term project to read a first-class biography of every President of the United States is finding a well written, scholarly, and accessible single-volume account of the life of our first President, George Washington. To be sure, there are a multitude of books about George Washington currently in print, but nearly all of them are long, multi-volume works, including Douglas Southall Freeman’s classic Pulitzer Prize-winning, 7-volume Washington and James Thomas Flexner’s equally outstanding 4-volume George Washington.
Recently, while browsing one of our local bookstores, I discovered a fat paperback volume with Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington on the cover. The book, entitled The Real George Washington: America’s Most Indispensable Man, is written by Jay A. Parry, Andrew M. Allison, and L. Cleon Skousen and published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies. It purports to present to readers a portrait of George Washington “in his own words,” showing why he remains to this day one of the most beloved figures in American history.
Here, I thought, was the book on George Washington that I had been looking for many months! I eagerly purchased The Real George Washington, brought it home, and began reading it.
It didn’t take me very long to determine that The Real George Washington was a major disappointment. Far from being an impartial, accessible and easy to read biography of our nation’s first President, based upon sound historical research and rigorous scholarship, it is instead an overly simplistic attempt at historical revisionism from authors who have a well-documented political bias.
The Real George Washington runs to over 900 pages and is divided into two sections. The first part, a 625-page biography of George Washington entitled George Washington: The Man who United America, was authored by Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison, two former presidents of the National Center for Constitutional Studies. The second part, entitled Timeless Treasures from George Washington, features extensive quotations from Washington’s written papers and speeches, all alphabetically indexed by subject matter.
The book’s biographical section is very much a “mixed bag.” At first flush, it appears to be decently written and straightforward, telling how Washington, born in 1732 into one of Virginia’s most elite families of the planter aristocracy, found himself fatherless at age 11, nearly enlisted in the British army at age 15, and by age 20 was the commanding officer of Virginia volunteers assigned to stake that colony’s claim to lands in the Monongahela River Valley of present-day Pennsylvania – an assignment that ignited the French and Indian War and set Washington on the road to becoming “America’s Most Indispensable Man.”
According to Parry and Allison, Washington emerged from the French and Indian War a true military hero. Twelve years later, when the American colonies revolted against their British masters, there was really only one choice to become Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. George Washington, who had been living quietly in retirement at his Mount Vernon, Virginia home during the years between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, reluctantly accepted command of all American troops.
Washington’s achievements and travails during the Revolution are well known. Throughout the war, he continually battled not only the British in a series of hard-fought and usually losing battles that ironically led to American victory and independence, but also the Continental Congress and other American generals, both eager to replace him as Commander-in-Chief. He suffered along with his troops during winter encampments at Valley Forge in 1778 and Morristown, New Jersey the following year. In 1781, he ultimately led the American armies (assisted by the French) to victory over the British at Yorktown, Virginia, and then immediately retired back to his beloved Mount Vernon home.
His retirement was short-lived, however. By 1786, the United States was on the verge of collapse brought on by financial ruin and political instability. Washington was persuaded to attend a constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in May 1787. The convention’s purpose was to amend the Articles of Confederation (America’s “first constitution”) to provide for a more effective system of government. But Washington, along with the other delegates, knew that only a completely new Constitution would save the nation. With Washington as the Constitutional Convention’s elected president, the 58 men who met at Independence Hall in the summer of 1787 framed the Constitution that endures to this day as the supreme law of the American nation.
George Washington went on to serve two terms as the first President of the United States. Both of his administrations ensured the ultimate success of America’s experiment with liberty and a constitutional government based on republican ideals. When he died in 1799, George Washington was the most revered and beloved man in the United States, and remains so to this day.
Despite its polished writing style, the first section of The Real George Washington quickly reveals several deep and significant flaws. The work adds almost nothing new of note to what is already known about George Washington, and is in no way a detailed and unbiased examination of the man’s life. Throughout the book, particulars of Washington’s life are very sketchy, and many important facts are omitted entirely – including Washington’s lifelong public feud with his own mother, who continually and loudly criticized his involvement in the French and Indian War and American Revolution, and consistently badgered him for money. Another carefully omitted fact is Washington’s deep involvement with Freemasonry, and what influence that organization had on Washington’s thinking and actions.
Another problem with the The Real George Washington is the authors’ attempts to revise facts about Washington’s life to suit their own particular political agenda. The most egregious example of this is the narrative’s efforts to portray Washington as a practicing Christian. It is well documented that Washington was a nominal Episcopalian who attended church services only sporadically. He was a Deist who acknowledged a higher universal power which he usually referred to in his writings and speeches as “Providence,” “divine guidance,” or “the help of Heaven.” The well established historical record contradicts the authors’ assertion that George Washington was indeed a practicing Christian.
The second part of The Real George Washington is actually more useful than the first. Entitled Timeless Treasures from George Washington, it contains hundreds of excerpts from Washington’s writings and speeches. Washington was always a little embarrassed by his perceived faulty education (which was rudimentary at best) but he was, in fact, widely read and a skilled and prolific writer who had an opinion on a wide variety of topics. This section clearly demonstrates that George Washington was possessed with a keen intellect, and was generous, caring, and deeply devoted to his family and his nation.
MY VERDICT: I do not recommend The Real George Washington for serious students of history, primarily because of the book’s scanty detail, faulty historical analyses, and an obvious political bias. However, I can recommend this book, with reservations, to general readers who want an introductory, easy to read survey of George Washington’s life that doesn’t contain much historical detail – with the caveat that its blatant political posturing and attempts at revisionism make The Real George Washington suspect as a reliable work of history.
The Real George Washington by Jay A. Parry, Andrew M. Allison, and L. Cleon Skousen (United States: National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1991, 2008)
Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman (New York: Random House, 2009)