Edward G. Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington at UVA, recently published Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory.
What texts have contributed most to myths about Washington?
The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington by Mason Locke Weems, originally published in 1800 and reprinted dozens of times throughout the 19th century, remains one of the most influential Washington biographies ever written. Weems also invented many of the myths we know so well today, such as the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and then telling his father he could not tell a lie. George Washington Parke Custis, who was George Washington’s stepgrandson, published another influential book of myths, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, in the 1850s.
Weems and Custis were successful because they understood that Americans wanted to encounter Washington on a personal level, as a man who would have sympathized with their everyday hopes and needs. Weems especially concocted myths and stories that made Washington appealing to men and women, children and grandparents, farmers, workers and pioneers.
Which sources provide the biggest revelations about Washington?
The Papers of George Washington project has brought together copies of approximately 140,000 documents, almost all of them letters from or to Washington. It’s by far the largest collection of its kind, and the best single primary source of information about Washington. Using the Digital Edition published by the University of Virginia Press’ Rotunda imprint, it’s possible to search Washington’s correspondence to confirm or debunk Washington stories. I often use it to respond to queries about whether Washington said a certain thing.
There is no better tool for understanding Washington’s personality and character than his personal papers. Reading his correspondence, you get a sense of how he lived and thought from day to day—what concerned him, angered him or amused him; and what was his vision for the United States. Through his letters, Washington breathes.
Is it important that we have an understanding of the real man?
Myths and stories about Washington will always be with us. That’s a reflection both of our continuing interest in Washington, and of our unquenchable love for stories. And myths are not necessarily bad, if they help to inspire our love of history and interest in our heritage. Still, our curiosity and fascination with the past should be tempered with healthy vigilance and skepticism. Far too many mythmakers have sought not just to entertain, but to profit financially or politically from Washington’s continuing prominence in American political discourse and popular thought.