A Realist's Washington

AMONG my recollections of college is that of an instructor, somewhat testy in temper, who found unfeigned delight in exposing the pious frauds of history. On one occasion when dealing with William Pitt, after repeating to us the alleged last words of the great man, “ My country, O my country! ” he added, with some glee, “ But, young gentlemen, the nurse of the dead statesman, when she was examined, testified that what the dying man did say was, ‘ Gruel, — more gruel! ’ ” It is in some such mood of unsanctified enjoyment of reality that Mr. Hapgood seems to have approached the life of Washington.1

The mood is by no means unprofitable, for there are, it appears, still some trailing wisps of myth wrapping about the figure of the Father of his Country, in spite of the excellent service Mr. Lodge, Mr. Ford, and other writers have done. Though the earlier and cruder myths of the cherry tree and the hatchet and the lips that knew no oath have long since disappeared, yet, as Mr. Lodge pointed out some years ago in the Introduction to his Life of Washington, the more intangible effects of the myth-making spirit remain and are difficult to dispel. They were perpetuated, in fact, by the earlier portraits and biographies, in which Washington appeared in various guises more or less legendary : there was the semi-mythical figure, portentous, cloud-encircled, mounted on a dim white horse bearing down upon us like a figure out of Revelation; then the idealized hero, in stature a little less than a demigod, and a veritable embodiment of the virtues ; and then the benevolent statesman, his brow forever uncreased, and his countenance, on which was set an eternal smile, aglow with conscious rectitude.

It is against such and minor products of admiration untempered by judgment that Mr. Hapgood tilts with a delight not always well concealed, and at times with the additional zeal of iconoclasm. He has, one imagines, a quiet smile as he retells the story of Washington’s profanity at the battle of Monmouth, taking it from the mouth of an officer: “Yes, sir, he swore on that day till the leaves shook on the trees, charming, delightful. Never have I enjoyed such swearing before, or since. Sir, on that ever memorable day he swore like an angel from heaven.” But Mr. Hapgood’s portrait possesses other merits than vivacity, and compels one’s approval. Though he has given us no oil painting, but a pen-andink sketch, his work has the virtues of its sort; it is sharp in outline, definite and bold in detail, and shows the hero unsparingly, “ wart and all.” If Mr. Hapgood’s pen brings a blemish into too high relief, as where he makes it plain that his hero was so far capable of guile that he could, after agreeing with Burgoyne to furnish the British soldiers with supplies at the same price as that paid by the Americans, allow the British to pay in gold, while the Americans paid in paper money worth about one third as much, why, it is the disregard by other biographers of the imperfection that has furnished one of the occasions for the being of Mr. Hapgood’s book, and the truth may as well be grasped first as last that the wart is as inevitable as the hero.

If Mr. Hapgood’s anecdotal and somewhat informal Life strengthens the impression that Washington was as politic as he was brave, as canny as he was generous, as astute as he was benevolent, it need cause us neither surprise nor dismay. Washington’s fame is not of the gilded sort, that is easily tarnished or worn through, and we should by now have reached a mood of security in his character and renown that will let us enjoy every genuine touch of nature in him.

  1. George Washington. By NORMAN HAPGOOD. NewYork : The Macmillan Co. 1901.