There are many dichotomies that can define a person born in the latter half of the twentieth century. Beatles Vs. Stones; Ford Vs. Chevy; Coke Vs. Pepsi. Folks will say that the constellation of your preferences can be used to draw a picture of what you are and how you see the world. But the most often overlooked of these is the one that I think is the most reliable.
Are you a Washington or a Lincoln?
I grew up in a home where history was a key part of our present and the United States, its origins, leaders and wars were as openly discussed and debated as any other topic. I also grew up in Indiana and I think that had a big part to play in my becoming a Lincoln person. In fact, my love for Abraham Lincoln has been so oft-mentioned and discussed that its become a bit of a family joke. For crying out loud, I married a man who looked like Lincoln! On purpose! (*)
My secret shame–the flip side of the Lincoln coin–is that I’ve never really seen what the big fuss was over George Washington. Yes, he was the first president but by my reckoning that could have been anybody. The lot just fell to him. From what I read of his generalship he wasn’t necessarily a brilliant tactitician and in fact seemed to owe more to luck than to skill. Travelling to the homeplaces of both men in my childhood, it struck me also that Lincoln was the more gifted of the two when it came to both brains and heart.
So when Ron Chernow’s new biography of Washington came out and was roundly lauded I decided I’d spend the $20 to help repair my largely self-willed ignorance about the man. Part of me is glad that I have because it’s been a good education on several fronts.
- My husband may look like Lincoln but he shares many facets of temperment with Washington. He is stubborn, driven to prove himself through hard work and a master of his temper. Husband’s relationship with his late father is eerily similar to Washington’s relationship with his mother.
- Much of Washington’s success in life seems to be owing to a combination of ambition and what polite folks call “making connections”. (Less polite among us will say “brown-nosing” or other rumpish terms.)
- Washington owned slaves.
It’s that last bullet point that says so little and so much. I’ve always known that the Father Of Our Country was also an Exploiter Of Persons. But it was presented to me early and often that such was merely a regrettable necessity of the times and something that he “made up for later”.**
The Chernow biography is not for schoolchildren and in no way glosses over this aspect of Washington’s life. In detailing how this man was polite to everyone, charming to a fault and then would turn instantly to a slave and uncork it gives one of the best and most accurate images I can think of. How people treat those beneath them socially is the best barometer for their character. I’m convinced that this man who wrote to his property agents about slave purchases in the same tones he spoke of cattle acquisition was a callous and cruel soul. I’m troubled that he decided to rebel against England because nobody would give him a posh military commission and he owed his London brokers a lot of money yet he turned right around and enslaved human souls. I think he missed Jesus’ parable of the Forgiven Debtor.
To me it is no contest. Where Washington swanned about the Tidewater countryside, nattily dressed and aiming to charm the right folks Lincoln read and worked and read some more. Both men had a sort of drive, but Lincoln’s sprung as much from a heart full of compassion as a desire for a better station in life.
I’m sure that in the remaining pages of this biography I’ll find more about Washington I can warm to. But I’m not ever going to stop being a Lincoln girl.
* That is, I was attracted to him initially in part because of his resemblance to the 16th president. I doubt he had much of a say in the genes that gave him those looks.
**I haven’t gotten there yet but it sticks in my mind that he set some of his slaves free or something. If so it was after he died and enjoyed a life of leisure and wealth out of their unrewarded and forced effort.