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Two similar Georges

But history has treated President George Washington better and more fairly than King George III

Two similar Georges
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“Who is the most popular subject for biography?” Google offers widely varying results. But for world-­historical significance, George Washington ranks at or near the top of almost every list. From James Flexner’s Indispensable Man (1974) to Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency (2005) to Ron Chernow’s 900-page doorstopper A Life, few lives have been as extensively covered. What’s there to add?

Alexis Coe pointedly adds a woman’s perspective in You Never Forget Your First, a brief biography whose cheeky title should let readers know what they’re in for. Coe begins with a set of listicles about her subject (such as “Jobs,” “Likes,” “Dislikes,” “Pettiest Acts”—only two of those) before observing the towering figure constructed by the “thigh men”: historians like Ellis and Chernow who appear to swoon over Washington’s manly physique. Coe then proceeds to correct this worshipful stance by dispelling myths about Washington’s mother and his reputation as a military strategist.

Coe barely touches the war years, centering more on Washington’s home life and political career. Like many contemporary historians, she examines his writings and actions about slavery and considers his professed discomfort with it hypocritical.

David O. Stewart takes a more respectful tone in George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father. From a young man whose early ambitions were continually thwarted, Washington consciously began remaking himself in his early twenties. Stewart devotes the first section of his biography to this transformation, showing how Washington developed strengths and suppressed weaknesses to establish himself as a man of means and prominence—just in time for the War of Independence. Stewart speeds through the war, focusing on Washington’s development as a master politician rather than a master tactician, as he shaped a ragged militia into a functioning army and faced down serious challenges to his leadership.

His years as president were almost as fraught, particularly his second term. Stewart judges his commitment to abolition “tepid, conditional, and private,” when a strong stance might have set his country on a better path. That was his greatest failing; his great success was the United States.

George Washington and George III, king of England, have more in common than a first name: both sober and conscientious, both interested in agriculture and the theater, neither ever traveled outside his own country. But the king’s reputation has suffered much more than the president’s. Historians have generally considered George III mediocre at best, and all the present generation knows of him is a catchy song from the musical Hamilton. Andrew Roberts turns his considerable scholarship to brushing up the image.

The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, covers one of the most consequential periods of British history. When George took the throne in 1760, his country was at war with France over control of North America. When he left it in 1820, “the British Empire was the largest in the history of the world.”

George’s greatest fault regarding America was not understanding the people he tried to keep. In Roberts’ view, the colonists had governed themselves successfully for decades and reached a point where they could thrive on their own; slogans like “taxation without representation” were only pretext. The Declaration of Independence, with its catalog of accusations against a mythical “tyrant,” is “simultaneously grotesquely hypocritical, illogical, mendacious, and sublime.” A real tyrant would have crushed rebellion in its cradle.

Instead, George gave up a nation but secured an empire, meanwhile steadying his own country through anti-Catholic riots and French Revolution anarchy and the rise of Napoleon. The mental instability (probably bipolar disorder) that distorted his later years clouded the image of a pious, temperate, intelligent, and faithful king. He deserves better from history, and with this biography, he gets it.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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