Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Washington Shines through in Modern Moral Biography

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Washington Shines through in Modern Moral Biography

Article excerpt


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. …

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