Date of this Version
Documentary Editing, Volume 14, Number 1, March 1992
ISSN 2476-1796 (electronic); ISSN 2167-1451 (print)
Did anybody ever see Washington naked?" Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1858. "It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but, I imagine, was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world." Generations of Americans have viewed "the father of their country" in much the same light. So monumental is the figure of George Washington on the stage of American history, so stoic are the virtues commonly attributed to him, and so stiff and dignified is his persona in death as in life that one can scarcely conceive of him as human. Yet, knowing that flesh and blood must lie beneath the facade of the public Washington, his fellow citizens from the Revolution to date have longed for a glimpse of the private man, Washington in dishabille emotionally and mentally if not physically. In the early nineteenth century Parson Weems sought to satisfy that desire for a pious and patriotic public with fictional stories about Washington's youth. In the early twentieth century debunkers, addressing a more cynical and critical audience, tried to undermine the monumental Washington or at least to knock off enough chips to get at the "real" man inside. More recently a number of scholars have simply focused on Washington's image, producing works filled with valuable insights about the American character and Washington's public functions but shedding relatively little light on the inner life and thoughts of the "great man."
Now Rosemarie Zagarri has taken us back to square one by rescuing from the trash heap of history the earliest and only authorized biography of Washington, a work that previously was thought to be lost. Written by David Humphreys, a much trusted aide-de-camp who remained one of the general's confidants after the Revolutionary War, this unfinished biography is not definitive or exhaustive in any sense, but it does contain remarkably intimate vignettes of Washington the young soldier in the French and Indian War, Washington the middle-aged planter at home at Mount Vernon in the 1780s, and Washington the anguished and reluctant president-to-be of 1788. It humanizes the man more accurately and concisely than any biographical work has ever done simply because of the unique direct personal access that Humphreys had to Washington and his memories. It is history written from the inside by a biographer in residence.