George Washington: Separating Man From Myth

Over the centuries, President George Washington has been the subject of many stories, some fact, some fiction. Edward Lengel, author of Inventing George Washington, offers his insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

The official federal holiday that's observed today, which we often call Presidents Day, is actually Washington's birthday.

George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, under the Julian calendar. When the English switched to the Gregorian calendar, he took to observing the equivalent date, February 22, 1732. We're celebrating it this year on the 21st because in 1968, President Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, making three-day weekends a matter of national policy.

I thought I would preface our interview with Professor Edward Lengel of the University of Virginia with those few facts because his book, "Inventing George Washington," is all about what Americans have made of the paucity of facts about the father of our country. Over the years, we have made him religiously devout and indifferent, militarily inept and brilliant, physically nimble and pathetically clumsy.

Professor Lengel is the chief editor of Washington's papers, and he joins us now from Charlottesville, Virginia. Thank you for joining us.

Professor EDWARD LENGEL (Author, "Inventing George Washington"): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And before you tell us about some of the imaginative things that Americans have written, read and believed about Washington, I mean, first, how is it that a man so famous in his day could leave behind so much doubt about his life and so much room to maneuver for the fakers and the fabulists?

Prof. LENGEL: Well, it was partly a matter of his personality. While he was alive, he tended to be rather reserved and even distant and aloof. But it's also the fact that his papers were plundered after he died, even though he had called his papers a species of public property, sacred in my hands, and even on his deathbed, he had spoken about the need to protect them. But shortly after he died, first of all, Martha burned all of their correspondence between the two of them. And then his descendants, his relatives simply plundered them and lost lots of his collection.

SIEGEL: Now, a lot of us know about the Washington stories that grew up, thanks to his early biographer Parson Weems, who gave us the, I guess, the cherry tree yarn, I cannot tell a lie.

But here's a bigger and more arguable question. Was George Washington a religious man? Because there's a lot of lore about his profound faith.

Prof. LENGEL: Right. He was a very moral man. He was a very virtuous man, and he watched carefully everything he did. But he certainly doesn't fit into our conception of a Christian evangelical or somebody who read his Bible every day and lived by a particular Christian theology. We can say he was not an atheist on the one hand, but on the other hand, he was not a devout Christian.

SIEGEL: But what about his kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge in prayer?

Prof. LENGEL: That's a story that was made up by Parson Weems. I think he took it out of popular folklore. It's something that many Americans have always desperately wanted to believe. And even President Ronald Reagan in the '80s, he called the image of Washington kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge, I think, the most sublime image in American history. But it just didn't happen.

SIEGEL: And George Washington's prayer that's displayed at St. Paul's Chapel in Manhattan?

Prof. LENGEL: That's also a modified version of something that he said to Congress. And it was turned into a formal prayer by somebody, we don't know exactly who.

SIEGEL: And there's a whole range of stories. There's a story about his late-in-life total immersion baptism. There's a story about his comforting a Jewish soldier on Hanukkah at Valley Forge. There's no end to stories about what a prayerful man he was.

Prof. LENGEL: Yeah. I think this is a reflection of something that many Americans feel this need to be close to Washington and feel this need to feel like he's one of us.

SIEGEL: What about the argument one can hear at the other end of the spectrum that while he may not have been an atheist, Washington was a deist, and that indeed, his views of God might be closer to today's secularists than today's evangelicals?

Prof. LENGEL: Well, I don't know. He was not formally anything. He wasn't really a deist. I think if any philosophy influenced Washington more than another, it was stoicism. And it was a sense that he had a path that was laid out for him by providence that, by an act of will, he could either accept or reject. But he did not live by any particular tenets or theology.

SIEGEL: In the 1920s, you credit a writer named William Woodward with inventing both the word "debunking" and then the notion of George Washington as completely unadmirable and scurrilous.

And first, this man came up with the notion of debunking from Henry Ford's use of "bunk" or "bunkum."

Prof. LENGEL: That's right. And it was also a combination with he read a story in the London Times about delousing troops during the First World War. So he thought if bunk, which Ford called a kind of nonsense, was something that he could get rid off, then he would debunk just like soldiers would be deloused.

Woodward invented that term and used it for the first time in his attempt to debunk George Washington myths.

SIEGEL: He went about describing Washington as completely useless, guided by the desire for fame and fortune and not sacrifice for his country, terribly negative view of this man.

Prof. LENGEL: Yeah. And it was a reaction to the out-of-control mythology that had gone before, all of the George Washington slept here myths and all of the greatness of Washington myths. They had become so ridiculous and so foolish that Woodward just felt he had to get rid of them.

The 1920s were very cynical. There was a great sense of anger at Wall Street then, just as there is today. And Woodward kind of made Washington into an 18th-century Rockefeller, as somebody who was greedy, he thought only about money, but at the same time, he was physically clumsy and incompetent. It's almost as if he and his followers took a special glee in tearing Washington down.

SIEGEL: And they took to describing this man, who had been described in the past as, among other things, a very fine dancer, as a guy with big hands and feet who could barely move right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LENGEL: That's right. And he - it's almost like he pawed apelike at any woman who passed his way. And women were constantly jilting him.

SIEGEL: You have been immersed in Washington's papers. You've written about him as well and now have written about those who've written so peculiarly about him. What nugget of truth survives for you? What's the single most important thing you would convey about George Washington from your own scholarship?

Prof. LENGEL: He's one of those men who the more that I study him, the more I like him as a person. I do think he was a virtuous man and he was a great man. But more than anything else, he was a man who understood his mistakes. And he looked at himself honestly. He saw when he had done something wrong, and he moved on from them.

One of the problems we have with our view of Washington is that we view him as frozen in time, at a particular moment, as being some kind of a great monolithic figure, but he was really a human being who took a journey to greatness.

SIEGEL: Edward Lengel, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. LENGEL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Professor Lengel is the author of "Inventing George Washington." He spoke to us from Charlottesville, Virginia.

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