Schoolchildren may delight in the fable of our first president’s confession of arborcide, but for more serious scholars, George Washington has proved an irresistibly elusive subject. Despite leaving behind enough papers to fill 87 volumes (and counting), Washington revealed little of himself as a man in his writing, leaving plenty of blank spaces for biographers to fill in according to their prejudices and predilections. And the public’s appetite for scraps of gossip and insight about GW has not waned since his first biographer, Mason Weems, predicted his 1799 life of Washington would ‘sell like flaxseed’ (presumably the hot cakes of the 18th century). Since then, nearly every biographer and historian has taken a shot at old George, earning several Pulitzers for their efforts along the way.
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Joseph J. Ellis
Ellis, who won the Pulitzer for Founding Brothers, claims Washington was a deeply emotional man, despite his chilly and aloof appearance. According to Ellis, Washington was reluctant to accept Congress’s unanimous election as president, and devoted his political career to maintaining a strong central government.
Among the Washington tidbits revealed by Chernow in this Pulitzer prize-winner are the facts that while the president never had wooden teeth, he did try ivory dentures, as well as human teeth from the mouths of his slaves; that his wife, Martha, spent half the Revolutionary War at her husband’s side, despite her fear of battlefields; and that George established his own spy network during the war, using espionage and double agents.
James Thomas Flexner
In a Pulitzer Prize-winning four volume biography and an abridged single volume edition, Flexner attempts to synthesize the public and private Washington, starting with the president’s early childhood to paint a portrait of a man who was “a fallible human being made of flesh and blood and spirit — not a statue of marble and wood.”
McCullough, who won Pulitzers for his biographies of John Adams and Truman, here dramatizes the beginning of the American Revolution to tell the story of Washington, who had never led an army in battle before, and the men who marched with him, as well as the British troops who opposed the colonial upstarts.
The only writer on this list to have actually met the man himself, Irving draws on personal recollections to portray his namesake as well as other crucial figures of the revolution. Originally published in five volumes from 1856-59, the biography was among Irving’s last works, and the one he considered his masterpiece.