Wash­ing­ton as sol­dier, aris­to­crat and ex­cel­lent dancer

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY DAVID O. STEW­ART David O. Stew­art is the au­thor of “Madi­son’s Gift: Five Part­ner­ships That Built Amer­ica” and “The Sum­mer of 1787: The Men Who In­vented the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

‘Rid­ing With Ge­orge” gen­tly con­fronts the mar­ble, os­si­fied im­men­sity of the his­tor­i­cal Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and strives to re­veal the hu­man side of Amer­ica’s most leg­endary fig­ure. Au­thor Philip G. Smucker’s af­fa­ble tour of the haunts of our first pres­i­dent suc­ceeds rather well at this daunt­ing task.

Con­tem­po­rary pub­lish­ing smiles on such odysseys through his­tory, ev­i­dently hop­ing that modern ref­er­ences and a first-per­son nar­ra­tive will over­come any dread of his­tory in­stilled dur­ing rote mem­o­riza­tion for school ex­ams. Smucker, a jour­nal­ist and a (very) dis­tant rel­a­tive of the great Ge­orge, deftly sprin­kles modern-day en­coun­ters through an of­ten thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of who Wash­ing­ton ac­tu­ally was.

By em­pha­siz­ing the so­cial and recre­ational pas­times at which Wash­ing­ton ex­celled — no­tably, danc­ing and horse­man­ship (and its rel­a­tive, fox-hunt­ing) — the book con­nects those ac­tiv­i­ties with his as­ton­ish­ing ca­reer. In those pub­lic dis­plays, Wash­ing­ton mod­estly yet un­mis­tak­ably show­cased his mas­tery and sheer phys­i­cal grace, which re­in­forced his lead­er­ship as a gen­eral and a politi­cian.

To hone his his­tor­i­cal in­sights, Smucker turned to many ex­perts, in­clud­ing a ge­neal­o­gist in Vir­ginia’s West­more­land County, where Wash­ing­ton was born, arche­ol­o­gists at Wash­ing­ton’s boy­hood home in Fred­er­icks­burg and schol­ars at Vir­ginia’s re­stored colo­nial cap­i­tal at Wil­liams­burg.

The au­thor also vis­ited a reen­act­ment of the Bat­tle of the Monon­ga­hela, where Bri­tish Gen. Ed­ward Brad­dock led some 1,300 sol­diers (in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton) into a bru­tal slaugh­ter in­flicted largely by In­dian fight­ers. The episode re­veals not only that there ac­tu­ally are French and In­dian War reen­act­ments but also that they in­clude such a no­table de­ba­cle for the white in­trud­ers.

Not ev­ery at­tempt to con­nect the past to the present works out.

The book’s ti­tle prom­ises a horse­back tour of Wash­ing­ton-re­lated places, but the au­thor was rarely mounted. Twenty-first-cen­tury land de­vel­op­ment pat­terns in the East of­fered no op­por­tu­nity for in­tense horse­back travel of the sort fa­vored by Wash­ing­ton, who could cover 100 miles in two days.

So when Smucker couldn’t hire a horse near the site of Wash­ing­ton’s cli­mac­tic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War vic­tory at York­town, he ac­com­mo­dated modern re­al­i­ties by hop­ping a Seg­way to roam the bat­tle­field.

Smucker brings his own in­sights to Wash­ing­ton’s story, con­nect­ing Mary Wash­ing­ton’s ap­par­ent love of horses with her fa­mous son’s eques­trian ex­cel­lence, while shrewdly stress­ing the im­por­tance to his suc­cess of Wash­ing­ton’s aris­to­cratic neigh­bors, the Fair­fax fam­ily. Through their in­valu­able spon­sor­ship, plus their tute­lage in the fine points of de­port­ment, Wash­ing­ton hauled him­self out of the third rank of Vir­ginia landown­ers and into con­ti­nen­tal promi­nence.

Smucker even of­fers a sym­pa­thetic ex­pla­na­tion of the young Wash­ing­ton’s cringe-in­duc­ing re­port from his first bat­tle that he found some­thing “charm­ing” in the sound of bul­lets whistling through the air.

That re­mark elicited per­haps the only sur­viv­ing ex­am­ple of King Ge­orge II’s wit, when he com­mented that Wash­ing­ton would “not say so if he had been used to hear­ing many.”

Based on his own ex­pe­ri­ences cover­ing com­bat zones, Smucker de­fends his il­lus­tri­ous fore­bear’s re­mark, in­sist­ing that the adren­a­line rush of war can pro­duce re­sponses like Wash­ing­ton’s. In­deed, the com­ment re­calls the ob­ser­va­tion of an­other Vir­ginia war­rior, Robert E. Lee, that “it is good that war is so hor­ri­ble, or we might grow to like it.”

Smucker is not a slav­ish apol­o­gist. He ac­knowl­edges that the young Wash­ing­ton could be bump­tious, un­wise or dis­re­spect­ful, and that there was an in­creas­ing gap at the end of Wash­ing­ton’s life be­tween his aris­to­cratic ways and the emerg­ing egal­i­tar­ian man­ners of the Amer­i­can repub­lic.

Yet, un­like some who un­der­take lit­er­ary tours through his­tor­i­cal land­marks, Smucker main­tains an af­fec­tion­ate at­ti­tude to­ward his sub­ject, not a mock­ing or ironic one. That at­ti­tude is all the more re­mark­able for a man whose par­ents some­times chas­tised him to “start act­ing a lit­tle more like Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton.” Such re­marks could have soured a per­son on Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton for life.


Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton ac­cepts the Bri­tish sur­ren­der af­ter the Bat­tle of York­town in 1781.

RID­ING WITH GE­ORGE Sports­man­ship & Chivalry in the Mak­ing of Amer­ica’s First Pres­i­dent By Philip G. Smucker Chicago Re­view Press. 362 pp. $26.99

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