George Washington -- the Teflon Founding Father?

07/02/2010 01:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With Independence Day approaching--and this week, a Supreme Court nominee undergoing confirmation hearings--Americans again find themselves talking about the Founding Fathers, their wisdom, and perhaps their flaws. As a historian of the American Revolution, I have learned that to write about the Founders is guaranteed to get a lively response from general readers; to criticize them can be asking for trouble. I have been reminded of this again with the publication of my book The Ascent of George Washington.

When I embarked on the project--a study of Washington's sometimes Machiavellian political genius--my editor told me that I would need a thick skin if I criticized Washington. He said that a great many Americans, and possibly some professional historians, preferred that the father of their country be unblemished. He was right.

Although I have been surprised to learn how many general readers and reviewers appear to have been longing for a revisionist work on Washington (and the Washington Post named it one of the best books of 2009), not everyone has taken kindly to seeing Washington's flaws brought to public attention. Reviewers for publications with a conservative slant have especially tended to state their preference for accentuating Washington's greatness. One customer review on Amazon charged me with "character assassination." And a fellow historian called my portrait "scarcely persuasive"--in academic discourse that's even worse.

I believe Washington was a great man. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, it is worth remembering his years of sacrificial service during the War of Independence, his bold and daring leadership in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton which restored morale and helped to sustain the American Revolution, his backing of the Constitution, his commitment to strengthening the new nation so that it could resist the predatory powers in Europe, and as president his dedication to the preservation of peace, which he recognized as vital to the survival of the fragile American Union.

Nevertheless, the real Washington differed from the Washington of myth. He was a skilled politician, perhaps the best America has ever produced. No other American politician ever succeeded in convincing his fellow countrymen that he was above politics--surely the best possible proof of how adroit Washington's political skills really were.

As a general, Washington outmaneuvered rival commanders and was remarkably successful at deflecting blame for military setbacks onto others. He was masterful in dealing with the fractious and meddlesome Continental Congress. As president, Washington artfully advanced the Federalist agenda for a strong national government without ever getting his hands dirty in partisan squabbles.

Washington was what we'd call a "Teflon politician"--even in his own day, when political debate was at least as abrasive as it is now, charges against him rarely stuck. Contemporaries who criticized Washington, or were merely seen as opponents, soon discovered that they had stepped on the third rail of American politics. Generals Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, activists such as Thomas Mifflin and Benjamin Rush-- even future presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison--risked censure for having run afoul of Washington. Sometimes the penalty was far worse. General Lee was ousted from the Continental army and challenged to duels by sycophants eager to curry favor with Washington.

Still, people of Washington's time often understood his shortcomings better than we do today, when his memory has been burnished to a blinding glow. Some contemporaries did speak out about his mistakes. After the war, Thomas Paine published an open "Letter to George Washington" in which he criticized the American commander. Paine, like some others, believed Washington had nearly lost the war through his military inactivity in the years 1778-1781. "You slept away your time in the field, till the finances of the country were completely exhausted," Paine charged.

Another who came to see Washington as flawed was James Madison. In 1798, he drafted an Independence Day toast to the Father of the Country: "GW the hero of liberty. May his enemies have the justice to applaud his virtues, and his friends the candor to acknowledge his error."

But in the end Madison shrank from publicly offering a toast which recognized that Washington could be wrong. There have been times when I thought I should have followed Madison's lead.