Inventing George Washington

Over at The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reviews Edward G. Lengel’s Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth & Memory.  Kakutani does not think the book is any good (a bit harsh for a woman who is a literary critic and not a historian) and tells her readers that they are better off reading Joseph Ellis or Ron Chernow. (I find this odd, being that Ellis and Chernow don’t go into any great detail on the way Washington was remembered.  Perhaps she could have suggested Paul Longmore’s The Invention of George Washington).  But Kakutani does like the chapter on Washington’s religion.  Here is a taste:

It is only in the chapter about Washington’s religious beliefs that Mr. Lengel examines assorted myths, anecdotes and images in a methodical — and persuasive — fashion, informing the reader precisely of what is known, what’s been invented or altered, and how assorted fictional anecdotes have lodged themselves in the collective imagination. 

Mr. Lengel writes that Washington “never spoke openly about his faith — or lack thereof.”

“Just why is unclear,” he adds. “Maybe he considered professions of religious partisanship to be inconsistent with his sense of public decorum. Or perhaps, deep down, he just wasn’t very interested in religion.” In any case, Mr. Lengel goes on, “we can never really know exactly what he did or did not believe about God.”

That did not stop clerical eulogists, however, from making what Mr. Lengel calls “exaggerated claims, unsupported by evidence, of his Christianity.” Also unsupported by evidence were all the images that would proliferate of Washington kneeling in prayer, including, Mr. Lengel says, a bronze tablet depicting him praying in the snow at Valley Forge, which was unveiled at the Sub-Treasury Building in New York City in 1907; a nine-foot statue of a kneeling Washington that the Pennsylvania Freemasons gave the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge; and a stained-glass window, depicting Washington praying, in the United States Capitol’s Congressional Prayer Room.

Bogus Washington quotations about religion seem to have been pressed on the public from the 19th century on: one of the most popular, cited by Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Mr. Lengel says, has Washington stating that “it is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” And a passage from a Washington letter, Mr. Lengel goes on, has been “cleverly modified” and turned into a prayer, which is engraved in St. Paul’s Chapel in New York.

One thought on “Inventing George Washington

  1. I agree with you: the reviewer did not argue her case well. Being a historical acount, it sets the record straight on the many tall tales that are rampant about GW, and I agree with the author that these tales do embellish the image of the man–making him more accessible to the layman.


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