Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America's Founding Father
by Peter Stark
The stoutest heart might quail at the prospect of yet another book about the youth of George Washington. Such books have appeared like clockwork since shortly after Washington's death in 1799, and they're almost always undisguised exercises in post hoc ergo propter hoc, since the whole genesis of such books is to reinforce the popular image of the quintessential national hero by reading his greatness back into his formative years. That kind of narrative contortion is doubly disorienting: first, it tells a life story backwards instead of forwards, and second, its straining to make a paragon out of a boy presumes that the grown man was a paragon. Such books can only give readers a young Washington who's pristinely brave and selfless if they first serve up an old Washington as noble, disinterested, and disposed to heal lepers and sight the blind on idle weekends. If you don't buy that starting point, books about the virulently virtuous beginning point can be downright depressing.
And yet such books are as old as the country and always find a market, so readers should beware. The grown-up Washington was a man downright replete with human flaws and shortcomings, including flaws and shortcomings he stubbornly retained years and even decades after he became aware of them. And since he was vigorously involved slaveowner, the grown-up Washington was very often worse than fallible: he was very often actively evil. And although flaws and evils tend to accumulate over time, they seldom come from nothing; a biography of a young Washington by rights ought to paint a picture of a callow, grasping social climber for a large part of its page-count.
Historian Peter Stark's new book is called Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America's Founding Father, so for the cautious reader it should raise warning flags immediately. Asking how wilderness and war forged Washington presupposes that wilderness and war did forge him – when there are some very good arguments to be made that they had no effect on his core personality at all (and of course anyone from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – home to Samuel and John Adams – will bridle at “Founding Father” being singular).
But although wariness is always warranted when wading into a wodge of Washingtoniana, Stark here brings a very welcome bit of balance to his account. He achieves this mainly by mostly keeping in mind that his hero was at heart a shape-changer, acutely conscious mainly of how others perceived him (and, although Stark hits this far more gently, how they could benefit him materially):
Even at his young age, he had shown a chameleon-like ability to assume new roles, to absorb new cultural rules, social bearing, outward dress, as if taking on a new stage play: young surveyor toting his precision instruments and jotting mathematical notations, eager student of gentlemanly behavior under the tutelage of Colonel Fairfax, wilderness messenger striding through the snowy forest in his moccasins and Indian leggings, uniformed young Virginia office with sword, riding boots, and perfect posture in the saddle, commanding troops in the field or entertaining the admiring ladies at Belvoir Manor.
The main strength of Young Washington derives from how often its author is willing to wander away from young Washington. The years of Washington's young manhood – spent as a lower-rung member of Virginia's landed gentry and trekking in the Ohio Valley wilderness – coincided with (and in their own way exacerbated) the rising tensions between the great powers of England and France. Stark captures those rising tensions with a dramatic tension that strengthens from chapter to chapter, helped along by generous helpings of colorful scene-setting, as in the recounting of a misadventure experienced by one of Washington's military colleagues under the command of General John Forbes in 1758. Major James Grant would survive the misadventure and go on to become an MP who was vocal in his hatred of Americans and his contempt for their fighting abilities, but back in 1758, he might have thought he wouldn't live out the day:
It was a debacle. French soldiers and their Indian allies swarmed from the fort's gates, broke into small parties that stalked tree to tree in the misty forest, and sighted their muskets at the kilted and bereted Highlander officers wearing their dirks – long daggers – who strode about in the open directing their troops. Having dropped the Scottish officers, the Indians and French went to work on the Highlander troops, who, without their leaders, fell into confusion, then panic, and then headlong flight, despite Major Grant's efforts to rally them on the high ground. Major Grant kept fighting until he and a small body of troops were backed downhill to the river's edge.
“My heart is broke,” he said, according to an officer who escaped. “I shall never outlive this day.”
Then, calling his name, which they somehow knew, the French and Indians closed in on Grant, too.
Stark's ability to bring scenes like this to life never deserts him, which is reason enough to read his book. And the whole performance is further elevated by the more-or-less even-handed way he deals with his title character. George Washington in his twenties and early thirties was a moody, morose prig who towered over his men but did not inspire them, a tirelessly loyal and hard-working officer who perfectly served his superiors but never pleased them, and those realities, plainly visible in dispatches and letters and memoirs, is often unpalatable to historians and biographers intent on presenting a marble hero to their readers. Stark doesn't seem to have that intent, or at least not much of it; rather, he concentrates on how transforming the experiences of these decades would be on Washington. He can't quite show that those experiences did transform young Washington – understandable, since they didn't – but he amply shows how they transformed most of the book's large supporting cast, and he's so effective at portraying their personalities that readers will go a dozen pages at a stretch without remembering the ostensible star of the show.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com