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Who was George Washington? New book
looks beyond public persona
(April 5, 1999)
ome day, when the definitive history of George Washington is written, Robert Tilton may be credited for salvaging an understanding of America's best known historical figure, whose real life has for so long been obscured by myths and heroic tales.
That, at least, is the intent of George Washington: The Man Behind the Myths, (University Press of Virginia), a new book by Tilton, assistant professor of American literature and director of American studies at UConn, and his colleague, William Rasmussen, curator of art at the Virginia Historical Society.
The book serves as a catalogue for an exhibition now mounted at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.
This is the second book Tilton and Rasmussen have worked on together. In 1994, after the publication of Tilton's Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge University Press), they co-authored Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend that examined the historical record of Pocahontas's life and compared it to the works of writers and artists who had adapted her story to their purposes.
The success of their first collaborative interdisciplinary effort, and a curiosity about other historical figures whose real lives had been masked by myth and legend, prompted them to take on Washington, Tilton says.
"We assume so much but actually know so little about George Washington," says Tilton, who joined the UConn faculty in 1995. "His face is familiar to all Americans, yet he's considered more as an icon than remembered as a real man. Our goal is to return the actual man to the fore, and argue for the importance of those segments of his life that quickly faded from consideration in the years following his death."
George Washington: The Man Behind the Myths draws on the ways that earlier historians and artists presented Washington's life, while at the same time it examines the historical record through manuscripts, paintings, prints, sculptures, books, and decorative objects once owned by Washington.
What emerges from this vast array of documentation is a reconstruction of Washington's private life at Mount Vernon as husband, father, member of the elite gentry, and slaveholder.
Through this reconstruction, Tilton and Rasmussen reveal what motivated the soldier, farmer and statesman who not only defeated the most powerful nation of his day, but also played an irreplaceable role in inventing the United States of America.
"We are interested in the man Washington behind the public persona we know as a general and the first president," says Tilton. "By juxtaposing his private papers with household and decorative objects, with visual images and with narratives of early generations of Washington biographers, we have attempted to tell his story in an untraditional and, we hope, useful way."
Tilton offers some surprising insights about the human side of this legendary founding father that he unearthed during his examination of Washington's private life.
It is ironic, for example, that Washington, who would champion American independence, had his social rearing at the tables of the Fairfax family whose plantation seat, Belvoir, was the immediate neighbor to the south of Mount Vernon, Tilton says. This aristocratic family, which had been granted a five million-acre tract in Virginia in 1649 by Charles II, "was the wealthiest in the English colonies and its members were as close to feudal medieval lords as were ever seen in America."
Washington's association with the Fairfax family also allowed him to witness their use and delegation of authority. "The management style he learned by watching them deal with subordinates became very useful when he commanded the Continental Army and became president," Tilton says.
"We argue that Washington's memories of the aristocratic formality he saw in his youth in Virginia society helped him design some of the protocols for the presidency; such as how you address the president, how you approach the president, who gets to see the president, the hierarchy of the Cabinet," he adds.
Another little known aspect of Washington the man that emerges from the 39 volumes of his papers that are so far known to have survived, is that he was a prolific writer. Much of our knowledge about Washington comes from the constant flow of correspondence that allowed him to maintain an amazing degree of control over both his public and private affairs.
"We argue that he was what today we would call a control freak," said Tilton. "He thought he knew how to get things done so he wrote out his orders for managing (Mount Vernon) in incredible detail. Then after he returned from the Revolutionary War, he would ride around the plantation to make sure that people were doing what he ordered. Washington was a tough person to work for; he was a perfectionist. He demanded a high level of work from himself and all the people around him."
Washington also suffered failures, says Tilton. He never achieved two cherished goals: making a financial success of Mount Vernon, and freeing his slaves in his lifetime, although he did free them in his will.
"Washington was born into a slaving society and it would have been impossible for him not to think that slavery was not the way to wealth," Tilton says. "But as he aged he grew to oppose slavery, because his life experience had showed him that it was both cruel and highly inefficient."
The exhibit, "George Washington: The Man Behind the Myths," will be at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond through the summer, before moving to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville and the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.