Peeling the Myth

Peeling the Myth

'Realistic Visionary’ offers a useful set of inquiries.

Challenging the universe of thought about George Washington is no easy task. It requires steering through centuries of interpretation, carefully reviewing a wealth of original sources and charting a course through the darkness of mythology. Nevertheless, that’s what Peter Henriques has been doing at Gadsby’s Tavern for the past several years.

Henriques, who lives in Marlene, Va., is one of the speakers at Gadsby’s annual fall lecture series. For the past three years, he has delivered a dozen speeches about Washington on a wide range of topics: his interpersonal relationships with Martha Washington, Sally Fairfax, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as well as his thoughts on life, death, slavery, war, women and providence.

“He’s one of our most popular speakers,” said Liz Williams, assistant director of Gadsby’s Tavern. “What I like about his lectures is that they explore topics that you might not have thought of.”

Inspired by the positive response he has received in Alexandria, Henriques approached the University Press of Virginia about putting together a new book about Washington. The project was envisioned as a cross between a series of essays and a full-scale biography. Titled “Realistic Visionary,” the book is now arriving in stores — and Henriques will be appearing at Gadsby’s on April 19 for a book signing and lecture about the relationship between Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.

“It’s the kind of book where each chapter can stand on its own,” Henriques said. “If you want to read about Washington’s views on slavery, you can turn right to that chapter and start reading.”

By presenting ideas in a topical fashion rather than chronological order, Henriques’ book bridges the gap between a scholarly treatise and a popular biography. While invoking noted historians and employing the tools of critical interpretation, “Realistic Visionary” strives to be a readable work that will appeal to a wide audience.

“I wanted to humanize Washington without diminishing him,” Henriques said. “The book is an effort to take parts of his life and use them to reveal different aspects of his personality.”

THE LAST SEVERAL years have seen an explosion of Washington books. Joseph Ellis’ “His Excellency,” Joel Achenbach’s “The Grand Idea” and David Hackett Fischer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Washington’s Crossing” are just a few of the books that have been recently been added to the shelves. Henriques’ book makes a place for itself alongside these others with style and substance.

On topic after topic, Henriques explores relationships and events that shaped Washington — revealing the character that was at the center of his personality and the vision that informed his decisions. He is often critical of traditional interpretations, and he provides useful signposts to changing views of the past — navigating briskly through the shifting targets of academic debates.

“It’s not easy to find an up-to-date and scholarly synthesis,” Henriques said. “Hopefully, this book will be useful to academics while also appealing to the general reader who wants to know more about the human side of Washington.”

TOPICS CHOSEN FOR the chapters were designed to peel away Washington’s superhuman status and reveal his individuality. In a chapter about Washington’s religious beliefs, Henriques takes issue with evangelical arguments that have been popularized by writers such as Tim LaHaye — author of the “Left Behind” series. In a 1990 essay, LeHaye argued “if Washington were alive today, he would freely identify with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence on our nation.”

Henriques disagrees.

“In my view, such claims so distort George Washington’s religious beliefs that one must question either the scholarship or candor of those making them,” Henriques wrote in the book. “His faith was as aloof as he often appeared to be.”

In a chapter about Washington’s role in the French and Indian War, Henriques gives an updated interpretation of the conflict — using the modern world as a tool to understand the timeless motives of the past. He writes that it’s “a fascinating story, with its share of irony and tragedy” — one in which Washington led a “motley band of soldiers” and became “excited by the thrill of battle.”

“He seemed to view his Indian foe much the way most modern Americans view terrorists,” Henriques wrote. “The respect Washington showed to Indian warriors was similar to that which one would show to a dangerous beast that threatened one’s survival.”

Examining Washington’s controversial relationship with Sally Fairfax — the wife of his best friend — Henriques presents credible evidence that the two shared a bond that transcended friendship. “Those who enjoy psycho-history,” we read, “might put special emphasis on the fact that Washington also purchased pillows that had graced Sally’s bed.” He parses the text of a mysterious 1758 love letter that Washington wrote, and Henriques points out that Fairfax kept the letter in her possession for more than 50 years.

“Certainly, one does not keep such a letter if its purpose was to say how much the author cared for another woman,” Henriques writes. “People sometimes fall in love with people they are not supposed to. This seems to be one of those cases.”

ALTHOUGH BREVITY is the soul of this book, readers may be left wanting more. For example, Henriques states that “it now seems clear” which uniform Washington wore to sessions of Congress during the Revolutionary War. But we never learn why it’s clear. He indicates that “there were important psychological aspects connected with being a successful tobacco crop master,” but we never find out what they are.

In trying to humanize Washington without denigrating him, Henriques sometimes falls into overly deferential language that some readers might find cloying. An example of this can be found in the chapter about Washington’s presidency: “The gift he gave to his beloved country was priceless.” But on the whole, this is a clear-eyed examination of some of the things that made Washington tick.

It will not replace the breadth of Douglas Southall Freeman’s magisterial seven-volume biography or hold the popular appeal of David McCullough “1776.” But it undoubtedly deserves a place on the Washington bookshelf next to these volumes for its value as a compass — pointing the way through a mesmerizing sea of information toward a modern interpretation in a series of crisp and fully realized biographical essays.