'Washington's Revolution' is an engrossing, accurate, and occasionally original biography of America's founding father

Was America’s first president a mystery of subtle self-presentation – or just a shrewd politician?

Washington's Revolution: The Making of America's First Leader By Robert Middlekauff Knopf Doubleday 384 pp.

The fact that George Washington’s true character remains an enigma has become something of a biographical cliché – the phrase that gets repeated is “famously elusive.” But that’s because he was. Washington was a natural who worked at it. He was a military animal and a political animal. He was Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait – the reptilian eyelids, the pursed lips, the bunged air; Mr. Stuffed Tight – and he was the embodiment of the young Republic’s values: if its citizens sought honor, dignity, respect, and grace under fire, then Washington would earn the right to those qualities. He would not grasp at greatness, but push from it and thus have it heaped upon him – the prestige of relinquishment (take that, LBJ). He was both a steadying influence and a risk taker; tactful and determined; he would always be there, and always at a remove; for the people, but not of them. He was an adept at shape shifting: if you fold a dollar bill twice lengthwise, Washington turns into a mushroom.

Like Numero Uno, Robert Middlekauff’s Washington's Revolution isn’t highly original, except when it sometimes is. It is engrossing and hits the crux moments with great accuracy. A serious tarp has been thrown over Washington – hagiographies and debunkings, numerous multi-volume life histories and exquisitely focused scholarly monographs, from investigations into the nature of his teeth to investigations into his hunger for property – and more is covered on a regular basis as his papers get digital treatment and a more scholars get cracking. Smart, periodic syntheses are welcome; so, welcome, "Washington’s Revolution".

The question is, as always, why Washington? Why the reputation? Neither genius nor miracle worker, whence his elevation to First among Equals, our Father? For Middlekauff, emeritus professor of history at Berkeley, Washington is (and was) ever a study in contrasts and a work in the making, but also to the manor born (though to a second-level family, far from the elite; his wife would bring considerable financial security): he was the right man in the right place at the right time. If you wish to call that providential, as Washington and others occasionally considered, then so be it. He sat tall in his saddle without peacocking – okay, a touch of vanity in those bespoke uniforms, and maybe the 18 servants he brought along to winter quarters in Morristown clashed with republican ideals – and evinced a Protestant ethic of persistence, toil, and resourcefulness in which people could identify themselves: he was a soldier, he was a planter; he was not a man of leisure, but of effort. He would make the rounds of his frigid, squalid military camps every day, checking in from atop his white horse, but he would not fraternize with the common soldier. Washington believed in lines being drawn for the sake of discipline, a means to an end – the end being a deserving honor and an earned nationhood – achieved against absurd odds that flipped thanks to the intervention of the French navy, and the flabbergasting dithering of the British brass and quarreling among British military units.

Washington also had an instinctual politesse – which some considered sphinxlike or aloof – but was at heart Washington’s way in the world, a quietude with its own language and semiotics, ever respectful of propriety and courtesy, carried with ease yet painfully sensitive to public perception. It was a homespun diplomacy, a Tidewater gentlemanliness that could soothe ruffled feathers and maintain cohesiveness, whether caring for the wounded pride of a French naval captain or transcending provincial rivalries to keep an eye on the prize, a common national interest. He made about every mistake in the art of warfare, but he also made many wise moves, the wisest being not to leave the field. He was away from Mt. Vernon for seven years. When it comes to loyalty, the value of those years is incalculable.

Middlekauff’s writing befits a Pulitzer finalist and a Bancroft winner: well tempered, answerable to the evidence, and razory in its clarity and concision, like a really good Montrachet. It is not without humor – “Another young man was giving [Washington] heartburn at about the time Hamilton uncovered his own resentment…. John (Jack) Parke Custis, Martha’s son.” – and proceeds at a stately but gathering pace, for though we may know how things turned out, here we are in the mind and stirrups of a man who didn’t, and something monumental, shattering, is about to happen. If the writing is comfortable, the atmosphere it creates is ill at ease.

With canny timing, Middlekauff introduces pivotal junctures and insights that gel the narrative and give meaning to both Washington’s and the book’s progress. Middlekauff doesn’t slight the well-trodden grounds of Washington’s life – the murderous fiasco during the French and Indian War, the flea the Intolerable Acts put in his ear, serving without pay, the military adventures and misadventures – but he compresses them as he moves toward illuminations. An innate gift: “He may have been an inexperienced commander, as he sometimes confessed, but he had a feel for the political realities that underlay public policy and military action … the need for the public’s support.” Or a flash of character: “‘honour’ lay deeper in his essential nature – his attachment to truth, honesty, and responsibility to others. The war forced a process that defined him, fashioning, in fact, what he was as a man.”

We appreciate Washington’s near-Thomas Paine revolutionary boldness: “The American Revolution, he once said, and repeated on several occasions, was … ‘a Defence of all that is dear & valuable in Life,’ a war, in other words, that put at odds the American people and a monarch who was interested only in his prerogatives and reach.” Sometimes we wish he had taken the next step, even from our distant vantage point: he was not free of the social order, recognizing “early in the conflict with Britain that he and others like himself, slave owners, stood on ironic ground. They claimed liberty for themselves and all the rights of free men while they held hundreds of thousands of blacks in slavery.” And we can admire his ability to hold two opposing thoughts: the common cause demanded common measures, and “[n]o revolutionary leader surpassed Washington in the attempt to lead Americans to think and act together,” to “banish provincialism in favor of unity.” Still, his love for the distinctiveness that was Virginia – for all of it: the Houses of Burgesses, riding to the hounds, the manners, the tranquility – never diminished.

"Washington’s Revolution" isn’t all Washington, it is also a wealth of his surrounding circumstances, with local color (the militias are a patchwork with names like semi-pro football teams of the 1920s – the Pennsylvania Associators, the Massachusetts Continentals – and just as dirty, nasty, raw, and disobedient) and episodes that kindle the imagination: Henry Knox, in the dead of winter, dragging cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston; three-dozen French ships of the line massing together off the Virginia coast, including the flagship Ville de Paris.

In the end there is Washington, the personification of the first modern republican nation. The Continental Congress may have shimmered with vested interests and false promises, but it was also a start. “Washington, the commanding general, knew where power lay in the young republic and was determined to carry out the policies of its government.” Little wonder he has been compared to Cincinnatus. “He believed in civilian control, and he also saw that implicating civilians in … decisions gave them a stake in the support of their creation.” Washington, deservedly, was one such creation.

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