Archive for March 9th, 2011

Inventing George Washington — Truth From Legend

We all have our myths about our first president. The cherry tree myth. The myth that he married Martha out of money and carried on many romantic liaisons. Inventing George Washington sets out to expose the truth from the myth and tell, in pretty exacting detail, just how false a lot of the popular beliefs of the United States’ first president really are. Written by Edward Lengel, the book is fast paced and humorous, something you don’t often find when reading a non-fiction book about Washington.

The book doesn’t chronicle the life of George Washington so much as it debunks the myths created about him after his death. Using a deft touch, Lengel delves through the myths created by various individuals who either sought to idolize Washington (the cherry tree myth is just one of these) or to turn a profit off of his memory (P. T. Barnum succeeded in this). Moving from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Age and beyond, Lengel shows just how our first president was characterized as needed by the populace as we grew as a country.

One of the more interesting points Lengel hits in the book is the continuing changes to George and Martha. Early on, they were both portrayed as heroes to our nation but, as the 19th century drew to a close, Martha began to be imagined more and more as a frumpy elderly woman while George was the epitome of masculinity. Such images were of the times and followed the times thusly, but to see how the “hunk” George Washington was “held back” by his frumpy old wife makes the head spin. How myths are perpetrated throughout society so easily is amusing and, more importantly, very telling of just how much we want to believe that some great men were but lesser gods.

For example, look how much Abraham Lincoln has been deified in recent years. Every president wants to be like Lincoln, and are creating this giantĀ pedestalĀ for him to be placed upon. Again, everyone thinks of Lincoln as a giant, vigorous man (and he was, by most accounts) and his wife, Mary, to be old and frumpy. They quote him and quote myths, often improperly or even something not even attributed to the man. Does this pattern sound familiar?

Lengel does an amazing job at parsing through the myths and even tracing them to their sources, something I found highly entertaining and educational. With quick prose and a good pace, Lengel carefully corrected a few misconceptions I had about one of the Founding Fathers. I’m sure that it will do the same for any other reader as well.

Definite must-own book. I’ve already loaned my copy to a friend, who swore they’re going to buy it as well. I hope I get the book back

–Reviewed by Jason