Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory • Edward G. Lengel • New York: HarperCollins, 2011 • xx, 250 pp. • $25.99
Reviewed by John P. Kaminski, director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the director and coeditor of the multivolume Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.
When reading this book I was alternately amused and angered—amused from both the ridiculous myths that have been generated over the years and from Edward Lengel's deft satirical narration of them and angered by knowing that so many myths have been accepted by the public as truths. I was also upset that I had wasted my time reading such historical mumbo-jumbo. Be that as it may, Lengel has done a valuable service in pointing out how our image of George Washington has been molded by well-meaning storytellers and charlatans.
Lengel first examines the early nineteenth-century biographers, epitomized by Parson Weems, to see how they glorified Washington. Next, he examines the
mid-nineteenth-century figures who profited off Washington's image by writing biographies (George Washington Parke Custis and Jared Sparks) and novels (George Lippard), by fabricating personal relationships with Washington (P. T. Barnum's carnival display of Joyce Heth), and by making counterfeit documents (Robert Spring).
In another chapter Lengel examines the myths about Washington's love life. Many writers have focused on his love of Sally Fairfax, but some others have looked at his general flirtatiousness with women that always ended unsuccessfully when they rejected him. The one exception, naturally, is Martha Dandridge Custis, who has been variously portrayed as either loving and dutiful or cold and dowdy. On the heels of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, Washington has been charged with fathering a child by a slave named Venus who was owned by Washington's brother.
Lengel looks at a variety of Washington myths dealing with religion, three of which occurred during the trying times at Valley Forge—the full immersion baptism by the Rev. John Gano, the portrayal of Washington praying in the thickets, and Washington’s vision of the future. Another myth depicts his public acceptance of communion at Morristown, N.J., while a final one explains his utterance of "So help me God" at the end of the presidential oath of office in 1789. Lengel explains the origins of these stories and how they have persisted.
The muckraking era of the 1920s and 1930s saw a vicious assault upon George Washington's character. It also gave rise to the commercialization of Washington, the best example being the owners of Betsy Ross's home. Again Lengel convincingly shows how the myth of Washington asking Betsy Ross to sew the first American flag is simply historically impossible. Lengel also debunks spiritualists who have transmitted accounts of Washington's life mystically obtained directly from the great man's spirit. Washington's encounters with creatures from other planets are dismissed as are present day sightings of his ghost.
Lengel describes and praises the heroic efforts of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union in rescuing Washington's home. In the twentieth century, he examines the monumental publication of Washington's papers by John C. Fitzpatrick as part of the bicentennial celebration of Washington's birth and the multivolume biographies by Douglas Southall Freeman and James Thomas Flexner. Finally, Lengel covers Hollywood's rather tepid treatment of Washington, ending with a documentary film made for the Mount Vernon visitors' center in which the author himself served as the historical advisor.
Lengel's theme reminds me of the end of the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. When the movie's hero tries to set the record straight, denying that he
had years earlier shot the vicious gunslinger Liberty Valence, the local politicos disregarded the facts, saying that history is what we make it out to be, not what actually happened. Lengel tells us that "Washington apocrypha has become so thoroughly entangled in history and folklore that it is often impossible to identify, let alone disprove" (p. xviii). He has gone a long way to help identify and discard the chaff.