George Washington: The Founding Father by Paul Johnson

For most of his illustrious career Paul Johnson has not been know for his brevity. In his defense, it was not his language skills that determined the length of his popular books but rather the broad subjects he tackled. Subjects like The History of Christianity, the modern world, American history, and the history of art. Despite their length, these works have helped Johnson develop a loyal following as a popular and wide ranging historian.

But recently there has been a move toward brief biographies of important figures and events and Johnson fans have benefited. In 2000 Johnson contributed a volume on the Renaissance in the Modern Library Chronicles series. In 2002 he authored a pointed biography of Napoleon Bonaparte for the Penguin Lives series.

His most recent work follows in this vein. George Washington: The Founding Father is part of the recently launched Eminent Lives series by HarperCollins. HarperCollins has this to say about their new series:

Whether in politics, literature, science, or the arts, the subjects of this dynamic new series of brief biographies have shaped our picture of the world. The authors’ strong sensibilities and sharp, lively points of view make us see that picture in a totally new way. The key to the Eminent Lives series is the pairing of author and subject: distinguished writers on figures central to world culture.

I for one applaud this new imprint. As regular readers of this site know, I am a big fan of concise but interesting works of popular history (see here, here, and here for previous reviews from this genre) and the Eminent Lives series certainly fits the bill.

Johnson’s take on Washington is popular history (see here for more). If one is looking for tightly argued scholarship and debates about the latest paper this is not the place. First of all, Johnson tackles the subject in less than 150 pages. But that is not really Johnson’s style regardless. The readers benefits from this, as The Founding Father is an imminently readable and fascinating portrait of this critical figure in American history.

Despite being one of the best documented figures in history (Washington kept practically every document and record he received or produced), this towering figure was not always easy to figure out. Like so many of the founding fathers, Washington was often a mix of conflicting ideas and emotions. Johnson describes him as “an impenetrable mixture of ambition and diffidence, of confidence and self-doubt.” Politically he was determined to stay above the fray of the party clashes that began to develop but found himself being pulled in anyway. Johnson captures this tension succinctly:

[H]e did not fit into the stereotypes of either of the two groups now forming – the federalists, led by Hamilton, who wanted a strong centralized government on the English-European model, or the supporters of Jefferson, favoring decentralization and power vested firmly in the states. Events and practical necessities tended to push the president in a federalist direction, but many of his interests were those of a Virginian landowner, and so Jeffersonian.

Interestingly, much of American political history has been a push and pull battle between these two poles. And the sides are not always clear.

But if you had to pick one attribute that defines Washington and his greatness, it would be his willingness to serve his country without aggregating personal power to himself. He took on the duties of Commander in Chief when his country needed him and stepped away when the job was done. Both during the revolutionary war and as his time as president, Washington brought a much needed dignity and stability to the institutions he led, while at the same time avoiding the trap of hubris and power grabbing. His ability to put down power as easily as he took it up earned him the respect of the world. Johnson relates the reaction of King George III to Washington’s ability to step aside:

In London, George III questioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now that he had won the war. “Oh,” said West, “they say he will return to his farm.” “If he does that,” said the king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

It seems there are no shortage of brief works on Washington these days (Richard Brookhiser’s excellent Founding Father might be said to have inspired this entire genre; the American President’s Series volume on Washington is also quiet good; and last year’s His Excellency by Joseph Ellis, while longer, is also a very accessible yet insightful portrait), but Johnson’s is likely the slimmest ]. Despite this brevity he brings a freshness and liveliness to the story. Given its length and its readability one could practically tackle this slim volume in one sitting. It certainly rewards the time spent reading it. I would recommend this to history buffs and young students alike; or anyone who simply wants to learn more about this central historical character. I look forward to further volumes in this promising series from HarperCollins.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).