As you might imagine, a lot has been written about George Washington over the last 230 years. So when an author decides to tackle the man again, you can’t help but ask, “What’s your angle?” In Realistic Visionary, Peter Henriques’ is that George Washington has gained a reputation as something of an uptight, overly serious, colorless man (who just happened to be our greatest war hero and first president), and that this reputation doesn’t coincide with the facts. Henriques attempts to prove this by examining certain aspects of Washington’s public and private life to gain a better picture of who Washington was as a person instead of merely as a symbol.
Because this is “a portrait” of George Washington, it’s not a straight biography and only somewhat chronological, with studies of Washington’s various relationships mixed in with studies of specific events. It begins with Washington’s first search for glory (Washington was unfailingly ambitious and strived for public recognition) as a soldier in the French and Indian War, where he became a young hero while at the same time rubbing some of his elders the wrong way with his impatience and, at times, insubordination. It then fast forwards to Washington coming out of “retirement” as a plantation farmer to lead the armies in the Revolutionary War. (While Washington professed to want nothing of the leadership role, he showed up at the Second Continental Congress in full uniform on his commanding six-foot-two frame.)
Washington’s reign as president saw him become a practical leader, determined to do what it took to unite the new country (which was united in name only at the time) and make it feasible to set up a functioning government and economy. It’s easy to think of Washington now as just the first guy elected president, as if the government already existed, but of course Washington was in uncharted territory and the country’s leaders were still figuring out things like a senate, a house of representatives and how to keep a balance of power. Heck, they didn’t even know what to call Washington as the nation’s leader (John Adams suggested “His Exalted High Mightiness”).
Washington’s practicality didn’t always win him friends, as he approved the Jay Treaty, basically an appeasement with Great Britain to keep them from attacking us while they fought with France (who many thought we should be fighting alongside, as payback for their help during our war for independence). Washington’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson in particlar was irreparably damaged, as Jefferson thought Washington and Alexander Hamilton were conspiring to create a new monarchy in the U.S. instead of the people-powered republic that was often envisioned.
Realistic Visionary explores Washington’s personal relationship with his wife Martha as well as the possibility of an affair with longtime friend Sally Cary Fairfax during his engagement to Martha. The affair can’t be proved, but Henriques does prove Washington’s devotion to Martha, both through his surviving letters to her and via his actions during his career, including repeated requests for her to join him while he was in charge of the military.
George Washington’s views on slavery are tackled here, to no satisfactory conclusion. Washington seemed to turn against the concept of slavery over time, but benefited from it throughout his rich existence at Mount Vernon, which only increased its number of slaves throughout Washington’s life. He also did not push the issue politically, although Henriques chalks that up partly to Washington’s unwavering focus on the core issues of creating a new country.
Finally, Washington’s religious beliefs and his death are profiled. In essence, despite various religious groups claiming Washington as one of their own, Henriques makes the case that Washington believed in a supreme being (Providence) that watched over our existence, but made little claim to being a follower of Christ. Henriques notes that, even as he knew his death was approaching, Washington did not ask for any sort of religious rites to be performed. In fact, Washington throughout his life seemed more attuned to having his name be remembered across the ages by the living than thinking about the questions of death.
It’s accurate to say that Realistic Visionary is a scholarly work, but it’s very much accessible to the lay audience. If you’re a fan of history, this is a quick, informative read that you’ll enjoy.