Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory


An entertaining and erudite history that offers a fresh look at America's first founding father, the creation of his legend, and what it means for our nation and ourselves

George Washington's death on December 14, 1799, dealt a dreadful blow to public morale. For three decades, Americans had depended on his leadership to guide them through every trial. At the cusp of a new century, the fledgling nation, caught in another war (this time with its former ally France), desperately...

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Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory

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An entertaining and erudite history that offers a fresh look at America's first founding father, the creation of his legend, and what it means for our nation and ourselves

George Washington's death on December 14, 1799, dealt a dreadful blow to public morale. For three decades, Americans had depended on his leadership to guide them through every trial. At the cusp of a new century, the fledgling nation, caught in another war (this time with its former ally France), desperately needed to believe that Washington was—and would continue to be—there for them.

Thus began the extraordinary immortalization of this towering historical figure. 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lengel, editor in chief of the Washington Papers project and author of General George Washington: A Military Life, contributes a worthy addition to the plentiful scholarship of George Washington, if for no other reason than his naysayer approach to that very scholarship; Lengel wants to set the record straight, and he takes on the "cheats and phonies in addition to the well-meaning storytellers have capitalized on the American public's insatiable and ever-changing demand for information about" Washington. It's time to forget the cherry tree mythologies of our schoolbooks. Besides dismissing that tale (and the tellers who perpetrated it) outright, Lengel explores the surprisingly seedy underbelly of Washington biographers. For instance, one of the men who hopped on the George Washington myth-making bandwagon was no less than showman P.T. Barnum. Lengel's account of Barnum acquiring (for ) and then parading elderly African-American Joice Heth around the East Coast as "the 161-year-old slave mammy" to George Washington is equally disturbing and gripping; put on display 14 hours a day for a paying public, Heth soon died, and Barnum held a public autopsy—charging 50 cents a head. Lengel's end-of-book rant, when he tries to settle a score with filmmakers making a project for the Washington estate is a rare misstep in an otherwise fascinating, dryly humorous book. (Jan.)
Library Journal
In this engaging examination of the many facets of George Washington's character—both real and fictional—Lengel (editor in chief, The Papers of George Washington; General George Washington) reveals as much about the American people as he does about our Founding Father. With his distinct approach here, Lengel addresses the ways in which authors, researchers, charlatans, and the general public have invented and reinvented perceptions of Washington, ever since his own lifetime, to serve their own purposes. Much of what we have heard about the man is based on legend, conjecture, and fable, such as the famous (but false) tale of the child who could not tell a lie about chopping down a cherry tree. Washington has variously been described as a cold, impersonal military strategist, a devoutly religious family man, and a flawed and reluctant leader. Lengel details how these often contradictory characterizations responded to Americans' changing needs to relate to Washington.Verdict Lengel uses meticulous research—and lively wit—to separate the myths from the reality. Along the way, he reveals our competing desires to glorify and humanize one of the most important and complex figures in our nation's history. Highly recommended.—Michele Martin, Sonoma Acad. Lib., Santa Rosa, CA
Kirkus Reviews

Not a biography but a frothy history of the many energetic, often wacky efforts to turn George Washington into a godlike national icon whose life provides lessons in moral uplift.

Few deny that Washington did not cut down the cherry tree or throw a dollar across the Potomac, but historian Lengel (This Glorious Struggle: George Washington's Revolutionary War Letters, 2008, etc.), editor in chief of the Washington Papers project, points out that a PBS documentary examined his indignant refusal to make himself king in 1783 after leading the Continental Army to victory—an event that also never happened. The author stresses that every generation invents a Washington that agrees with its beliefs. Soon after his 1799 death, writers (including Parson Weems, of cherry-tree fame) produced a classical Washington—restrained, solemn and honorable. Victorian times required a romantic figure, passionately pursuing women as he agonized over his nation's fate, regularly appealing to God for guidance. Twentieth-century materialism converted him into a cold-hearted businessman, but a resurgence of nationalistic patriotism after Ronald Reagan's election revived the old-school father figure. Good 18th-century rationalists, our founding fathers were not notably pious, Washington included. However, by the following century this became unacceptable, and Lengel devotes a fascinating section to the torrent of sermons, invented quotations, anecdotes (everyone seemed to stumble upon Washington kneeling in prayer) and even a forged prayer diary designed to illustrate his evangelical Christian fervor. That these are fiction has not discouraged today's political leaders, religious and conservative websites, TV commentators and documentaries from presenting them as truth.

Readers will chuckle at this well-presented avalanche of nonsense, but squirm to realize that our leaders, media, journalists and even historians regularly accept it.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061662584
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/18/2011
  • Pages: 249
  • Sales rank: 418,360
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward G. LengeL is editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington and a professor at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books, including General George Washington and This Glorious Struggle. A lecturer on Washington and the Revolutionary War, Lengel is also a historical consultant, advising on such works as the History Channel's own comprehensive documentary. He is a frequent radio and television guest—appearing on C-SPAN, CBS, and NPR, among others—and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines in the vein of military history and American heritage. He lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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