the inscrutable one


No biographer of George Washington has failed to remark on his inscrutability. In “Washington: A Life” (Penguin; $40), Ron Chernow calls Washington “the most famously elusive figure in American history.” Sparks eventually published eleven volumes of Washington’s writings, together with a one-volume biography. In 1893, Worthington C. Ford published the last installment of a fourteen-volume set. An edition of thirty-nine volumes was completed in 1940. Of the University of Virginia Press’s magnificent “Papers of George Washington,” begun in 1968, sixty-two volumes have been published so far. But, for all those papers, Washington rarely revealed himself on the page. Even his few surviving letters to his wife are formal and strained. Those diaries? Here is Washington’s entire diary entry for October 24, 1774, a day that he was in Philadelphia, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, debating, among other things, a petition to be sent to the King: “Dined with Mr. Mease & Spent the Evening at the New Tavern.” Here is how John Adams’s diary entry for that same day begins: “In Congress, nibbling and quibbling, as usual. There is no greater mortification than to sit with half a dozen Witts, deliberating upon a Petition, Address, or Memorial. These great Witts, these subtle Criticks, these refined Genius’s, these learned Lawyers, these wise Statesmen, are so fond of shewing their Parts and Powers, as to make their Consultations very tedius. Young Ned Rutledge is a perfect Bob o’ Lincoln—a Swallow—a Sparrow—a Peacock—excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady—jejune, inane, and puerile. Mr. Dickinson is very modest, delicate, and timid.” Aside from chucking Washington in favor of writing about Adams, what’s a biographer to do?

more from Jill Lepore at The New Yorker here.