Off the Shelf: Our Struggle to Understand George Washington

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

February 8, 2011 — The Father of Our Country remains a somewhat colorless and distant figure. He's a statue, the face on the dollar bill. So politicians from Al Gore to Glenn Beck have bent George Washington toward their own ends.

Edward G. Lengel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, explores this phenomenon in "Inventing George Washington: America's Founder in Myth and Memory," published Jan. 18 by Harper. A reviewer in American History magazine writes:

"With grace, wit and detail, Edward G. Lengel … traces the fascinating trail full of unexpected switchbacks marking who and what we've thought Washington was."

"Since George Washington's death on Dec. 14, 1799, Americans have struggled to establish his place in the national consciousness," Lengel said. "On one level, Washington has remained a bold and enduring but ultimately colorless national symbol. On another level, the personal Washington has remained just out of our reach."

The search for Washington has generated scores of myths and legends that help people believe Washington belongs to them, whoever they are: Christian or secular, conservative or liberal, romantic or down-to-earth. "Washington legends often tell more about those who made them up than about Washington himself; but they make up a compelling part of the American tapestry," Lengel said.

Media Contact

Marian Anderfuren

Director of Media Relations U.Va. Media Relations