- Reviewed by
Biographical studies of George Washington often depict him in isolation from the social and cultural context that shaped him and within which he operated, thereby perpetuating a mythic figure immune to historical analysis. The essays in this volume seek to explain him not only within a particular region, the Virginia backcountry, but also within a particular process, expansionism into that region. Moreover, whereas Washington scholars have tended to employ a traditional biographical approach, five of the eight contributors in this book use the methods of economic history, historical geography, social history, ethnohistory, and psychology to illuminate the circumstances surrounding and affecting him. All of the essays informatively examine how the young soldier/land speculator’s backcountry experiences influenced his development and outlook. Some will especially interest historians attentive to the utility of various disciplinary methods.
Three writers offer straightforward biographical essays. Dorothy Twohig’s insightful overview, “The Making of George Washington,” shows how his backcountry years prepared him for his later endeavors. Philander Chase’s thorough study of his land-surveying career demonstrates not only that profession’s significance in an expansionist society, but the relationship of his surveying to his personal wealth, social standing, and emerging nationalist vision. John Ferling reviews the provincial officer’s formative frontier-military experiences.
The remaining essays each apply a different set of tools to examine an important aspect of Washington’s young-adult career. Bruce Ragsdale succinctly applies a generation of colonial-Chesapeake, economic-history scholarship to explain Washington’s business enterprises within the slave-labor-based, tobacco and grain plantation system of the mid-eighteenth-century Northern Neck. Complementary studies by Robert Mitchell, a historical geographer, and Warren Hofstra, a social historian, reconstruct frontier Virginia’s developing social system.
Biographies typically view frontier conditions from Washington’s viewpoint, but these analyses shift the perspective to that of the white [End Page 340] settlers—Scotch-Irish or German, non-Anglican and non-gentry, family and clan-oriented, and focused on their local neighborhoods—whose military-defense priorities clashed sharply with those of the gentleman officer. This fresh approach indicates that repeated contentions between localists and Washington, the British imperial patriot/American nationalist, should be understood to indicate, in significant measure, an ethnocultural and class conflict. Likewise, ethnohistorian J. Frederick Fausz repositions our historical perspective of Washington to that of native peoples, who viewed him as a fierce, even treacherous, enemy, bent on conquering, displacing, or eliminating them from lands coveted by British and American expansionists. Don Higginbotham finds Mazlish’s psychoanalytical concept of the revolutionary ascetic not particularly useful in explaining Washington. 1 It is more helpful, Higginbotham shows, to look at his formative grounding in Tidewater Anglo-Virginia’s planter gentry.
Taken together, these essays situate Washington as the product and leading representative of a specific class and culture. By yielding a more complex and surely more accurate interpretation, they demonstrate that explication of historical context through a variety of analytical methods can free figures such as Washington from marble monuments and make them subjects of historical analysis.
1. Bruce Mazlish, The Revolutionary Ascetic: Evolution of a Political Type (New York, 1976).