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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser

An interesting biography, a valuable perspective

Founding Father is not a long biography (199 pages), but it is an interesting piece of writing. It is split into 3 areas - about one-half of the book is straight biography, about one-third is an analysis of the character of our first president and the balance is an analysis of what it means to be a founding father, how Washington measures up to that ideal and what kind of "father" he was.

Richard Brookhiser
The biography section is great - straightforward and written in an engaging and lively style. The character portion bogs down quite a bit and the founding father section is interesting (it asserts that he was the kind of father who was most concerned with preparing his children for life outside of his home - life on their own. He encourage other people to step into leadership roles to fill the vacuum that would be there when he walked away from the national spotlight.)

One quote, above all, highlights the best parts of Washington. It comes from Napoleon, who comments in a moment of self-pity after Waterloo, "They wanted me to be another Washington." Think of it - Washington was handed the power to be a dictator and he turned it down. In fact, this book mentions that in all of Washington's letters, he only gets truly angry at one man, and immediately writes a rough letter to a colleague who suggests that Washington make himself king when the Articles of Confederation government begins to founder.
George Washington

Brookhiser makes an interesting observation about Washington's impact on American politics by pointing out the length of time he was nationally prominent in comparison with other American leaders. For example, FDR was president for 12 years, Reagan was only politically important for the 8 years of his presidency, Eisenhower was important for the 8 years of his presidency plus his time as a general in WWII (12 years total). Lincoln - 7 years if you count from the time of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Washington, in comparison was a national figure for 24 years - 17 of them as the leader of the country (you've got to count him as de facto leader of the country while he was leading the Continental Army since everybody knew that if he failed the whole Revolution would fail).

Brookhiser focuses on Washington and slavery in the character portion of the biography and, while Washington does not live up to modern standards on this issue, he was remarkably progressive for his time. He refused to sell any of his slaves since that would tear apart families. He is the only American president who freed his slaves upon his death. Washington seems to have dealt with the contadictions of "All men are created equal..." and slavery by mostly ignoring it.

So, to sum up, there are 3 sections to the book and I found the middle section to be a bit tedious.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Founding Father.

Reviewed in August of 2004.

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