History Headlines June 17, 2010: Gordon S. Wood: Was Washington ‘Mad for Glory’?

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

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HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

Gordon S. Wood: Was Washington ‘Mad for Glory’?

An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson
by Andro Linklater
Walker, 392 pp., $27.00

The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon
by John Ferling
Bloomsbury, 464 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Washington-Custis-Lee Collection/Washington & Lee University, Lexington, VA

George Washington as Colonel of the Virginia Regiment; painting by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

No two generals in the era of the early Republic appear to differ from one another more than George Washington and James Wilkinson. Although each man possessed considerable personal, political, and military skills and each at different times became commander in chief of the United States Army, the two generals seem to have little else in common. Washington was a revered figure in his own lifetime, someone who appeared to transcend the petty interests of ordinary men—a man of character, self-controlled, incorruptible, the epitome of selfless disinterestedness, and the savior of the new and fragile Union.

By contrast, Wilkinson, who was twenty-five years younger than Washington, was always a controversial figure, vain, flamboyant, and widely criticized for his selfishness and his lack of moral character. Throughout most of his career in the US Army, even as its commander in chief, he remained a paid secret agent of the Spanish government, a devious, untrustworthy, and corrupt creature who, far from endeavoring to preserve the Union, threatened several times to break it up. While Washington is rightly celebrated as one of America’s greatest heroes, Wilkinson may be the most unscrupulous character in all of American history.

But are the two men as opposite as they seem? Juxtaposing these two books suggests that Wilkinson and Washington may not be as different from one another as we have thought, or at least one of the authors wants us to think so.

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