Washington Shines Through In Modern Moral Biography


By Richard Brookhiser

Free Press, 230 pp., $25

More than any of America's great presidents, George Washington has eluded his biographers. Richard Brookhiser grants this fact at the outset of ''Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington.'' Don't come to this book looking for the private man or you will lose the essential Washington, he says.

What is essential to look for, Brookhiser says, is moral character, the example set by the way Washington lived his life and influenced his contemporaries.

With this as his goal, Brookhiser sets out to write ''not a life history of George Washington, but a moral biography in the tradition of Plutarch, of Washington as a founder and father of his country.''

But just what is a moral biography?

Brookhiser has a ready answer: ''Moral biography has two purposes: to explain its subject, and to shape the minds and hearts of those who read it ... by showing how a great man navigated politics and a life as a public figure.''

Washington was obsessed, Brookhiser says, with what today we would call his reputation or public image but was then known as ''character.'' From his youth, he sought dignified fame and military glory. He achieved both. His life became the platform upon which a fledgling republic, founded on ancient Roman and puritan norms, built its political fortunes.

The book divides into three sections: career, character, and founding father.

The section on career ''surveys what [Washington] did during the Revolutionary War, the debate over the Constitution, and his presidency.'' It examines his military training, the allegiance shown him by his troops, his role at the Constitutional Congress, his two terms as president, and his voluntary retirement from public service. (at a time when not a few would have made him monarch - the only prevailing model of chief executive.)

In the section on character, Brookhiser deliberately forgoes much of Washington's private life. He selects personal details solely for the purpose of illuminating their influence on Washington's public career.

The scribblings of the 16-year-old future president while an apprentice surveyor are a perfect example. Largely self-taught, Washington wrote down word-for-word in his copybook a translation of the 110 ''Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour,'' a primer on manners compiled by French Jesuits in 1595. He consulted it throughout his life.

Aware he is writing for a generation force-fed media images glorifying personal appearance, Brookhiser creatively bridges 18th- and 20th-century perceptions about physique and leadership.

Thomas Jefferson called the over-6 foot-tall, powerfully built Washington ''the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.'' Brookhiser establishes a symmetry between Washington's size and norms of leadership.

In the final section, Washington, sire of the nation, becomes today's role model for redressing the sorry state of paternity. ''The contemporary failure of fatherhood is perhaps the subtlest barrier to our understanding of Washington, the greatest source of the distance between us and him,'' Brookhiser writes.

Since Colonial times, the patriarchal norm shifted, along with the changing roles of women, like a cultural tectonic plate. Many traditional aspects of manhood and fatherhood find themselves in limbo, he writes.

By stressing the political patrimony of the man Congress acclaimed as ''first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,'' but not opting for an anachronistic model, Brookhiser suggests we might better address the many doubts about fatherhood (and motherhood) we face today.

Brookhiser's slim, graceful volume is readable in one sitting. His style is muscular and discursive, yet unaffectedly erudite. He celebrates a ''dead white male of European ancestry.''

To a generation weaned on multiculturalism, talk-show emotings, and ''just-do-it'' impulsiveness, this book extols Washington's manner of leadership. It traces his roots to classical Rome. It admires his Christian courtesy. It holds him aloft as the paragon of republican liberty and responsible fatherhood.

''Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans,'' by the 4th-century Greek philosopher Plutarch, was widely read by the founders of the United States. Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review magazine, intends this book to similarly influence young citizens today.

It could.

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