The Evolving Biography and Myths of George Washington

Edward Lengel discusses Inventing George Washington.

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George Washington's death in December 1799 left Americans feeling "orphaned" and yearning for confirmation that their founding father would continue to guide them, says Edward Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. To maintain and even enhance Washington's legacy, those close to him wrote extensive biographies that portrayed him as a perfect, almost godlike figure in American history. In the centuries since, Americans have remade the founding father's image to support their political, religious, and social ideals. These efforts gave birth to waves of falsehood, Lengel argues in Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory. He recently spoke with U.S. News about how the image of Washington extends far beyond the myth of the "cherry tree and wooden teeth." Excerpts:

Explain the difference between the private and the public Washington.

Wherever he went, he moved as if he was an actor on a stage and everybody was watching him. He was aware that everything he did was going to be measured and evaluated. As a result of that, he really pushed down his strong feelings, his passions, his emotions, his ideals. I think he only shared them with one person, and that was Martha.

Was he always like that?

In his younger years, he was much more openly emotional and much more outspoken. But he learned as he grew older, in his 20s and his 30s, that he had to control himself, and self-control and willpower were dominating factors of his personality.

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What are some of the common myths about Washington?

There's a myth that he didn't get along with Martha at all, that Martha was ugly and cranky and stupid, and that Washington sought solace in the arms of other women after he was married. That's a myth that's only recently been exploded to show that they did love each other deeply. There are many modern myths about Washington's supposed political beliefs or religious belief. When people feel that they are in a political fight, they need to have Washington on their side. People across the political spectrum and across the religious spectrum have concocted myths about Washington to say that he was either conservative or liberal, or that he was an evangelical Christian or even an atheist.

What myth is the most surprising to you?

Myths that he smoked marijuana, which is completely ridiculous. Myths that he consorted with space aliens or that his ghost flits around the countryside or haunts historic houses. And even the myth that he supposedly had a child with a slave, which, in my opinion, is on the same spectrum of ridiculousness because there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

How did these myths come about?

They start with the passionate desire that Americans have had since Washington died, to know him . . . to feel that they can shake hands with him, look him in the eye.

Have any of these myths damaged his legacy?

Yes. I still hear people asking whether he died of syphilis. All of these fit into a new mythology created in the 1920s that tries to take Washington down, tries to portray him as a rake, scoundrel, and fool who only succeeded by accident. But I also think the modern mythmaking is damaging because it twists Washington into somebody he was not. It prevents us from really seeing his true example for the nation.

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How will we continue to "invent Washington?"

I'm hopeful that with all the Washington papers being out there free to the public online . . . we will have grounding of the real Washington. It hopefully will be more difficult to twist or manipulate him. But I'm not foolish enough to believe the storytelling will end.

What can President Obama learn from Washington?

One of the things we don't realize about Washington is that he was a very idealistic man. He was somebody who had very strong and firm personal, moral, and political principles, and he stuck to them. But he had enough realism to understand that sometimes you have to adjust your path to achieve what you want. Not exactly compromise, but take a realistic account of people and things as they actually are.