A review of Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, by Garry Wills
Back in 1978, Carry Wills’s Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was greeted with immense acclaim, much of it from people who should have known better. I read the book and was filled with such indignation at its shabby scholarship in the service of sinister ends, that I wrote an angry, careful, and devastating review which was printed in Policy Review in Winter 1980. Strangely undeterred, Wills went ahead with a sequel: Explaining America: The Federalist. I exposed its error and menace in another review, in Policy Review, Winter 1982. Wills’s program calls for subsequent books on the Constitution and the Supreme Court. But in the meantime he has turned aside to write a book on George Washington, and duty calls. This is getting tiring, though, and less fun.
It is easy to see why Wills was lured into this digression. He seems to be intent on eradicating America’s low “individualism” in favor of a lofty “communitarianism,” and is starting with its past. So in Inventing America he denied a Lockean provenance to the Declaration of Independence. Then in Explaining America he discerned in TheFederalist the outline of a political structure consonant with a “communitarian” foundation: not one applying “the policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives,” but one in which a people dedicated to the common good are served by a corps of disinterested political leaders. Now if there ever was a deliberately and conspicuously disinterested political leader, sedulous in inculcating dedication to the common good among the people by example as well as precept, it was George Washington. The portrayal of this undeniably and unsurpassably virtuous figure may help lend a certain plausibility to the perverse thesis of the earlier books. Wills might say what Hamilton did: Washington is an aegis very essential to him.
There is, to be sure, something disarming about Will’s efforts. Shouldn’t every voice added to the chorus of praise for the immortal Washington be welcomed? Even one a little cracked and off-key? Perhaps. But Wills has written no mere eulogy, or even a book mainly about Washington himself. The subtitle of Cincinnatus is George Washington and the Enlightenment, and what looks like a second subtitle shows up on the dust jacket: Images of Power in Early America. The subject is Washington as an epiphenomenon of the culture of his day and as viewed by its publicists and artists.
There are a lot of nice pictures in this book. Its most entertaining passages are devoted to their explication. How exhilarating to be conducted on a whirlwind tour of a collection by its learned, keen-sighted, quick-witted curator! But sometimes, after we catch our breath, how unsatisfying. Here is a gallery featuring Horatio Greenough’s massive bare-chested Washington, modeled after the Elian Zeus of Pheidias, we are told, a description of which is read to us. A modern attempt “to invoke the great image” is displayed: Ingres’s Jupiter and Thesis-in which the right hand not the left holds the scepter, the scepter is not encrusted with jewels and is not tipped with an eagle, the other hand is not holding out victory, and the head is not encircled by a garland. In both ancient and modern instances, however, the god has taken a seat. The shift of the scepter is pointed out and touches off an exposition of the significance of right-handedness and left-handedness, especially in neo-classical art. The right is masculine and active! Thus, in David’s Oath of the Horatii, the three brothers “stride forward on their right feet,” we are told, “raising their right hands in the oath. . . .” When we look at the picture, however, we see that two of the brothers are striding forward on their left feet, raising their left hands. Before this objection can be raised, our guide has anticipated another: What about Trumbull’s two Revolutionary War surrender scenes, where the vanquished seem to be on the active masculine side? His answer is that the victors are mewing capitulation and hence are properly pictured as passive. We may be puzzled that he chooses to illustrate the problem with the Trumbull painting of the surrender at Yorktown, where the defeated officer is in the middle and the victors are on both sides. And we may wonder about the solution when we recall that Trumbull showed Washington submitting his resignation as Commander-in-Chief from the passive and feminine side. We know there was some sort of explanation for that, but we have no time to remember it, for we’re back at Greenough’s statue. We can now see why Washington has to use his left hand to proffer his sword to the people, maybe-but we are perplexed over why Trumbull’s Burgoyne delivered up his sword and Trumbull’s Washington handed in his resignation with their right hands.
The little tour just completed may serve as a specimen of the manner and substance of Cincinnatus: a darting passage from one subject to another, directed by word association; dazzling at first in its broad range of allusion, soon appalling in its carelessness and superficiality. I am disappointed to find Wills as untrustworthy on the fine arts as I had known him to be on philosophy.
Life is too short to be spent in correcting all the errors of Carry Wills, or even in observing them. Let a few examples suffice, taken from what he has to say about Washington’s religious attitudes. He portrays him as so thoroughly secular as to await complacently the weakening of religion’s influence. This keeps Wills from making anything of Washington’s insistence on the necessity of “national morality” in the Farewell Address-which could be very useful to him-because it is inseparably connected to the encouragement of religion. Wills deprecates that passage by noting that Washington “softened” the words of Hamilton’s, draft and by failing to note that Washington contributed the significant inference from the need for piety to the need for education. Furthermore, Wills mistakenly reports that Washington shared the views of Jefferson and Madison on separation of church and state, whereas Washington did not favor their attempts to prohibit a general assessment for the support of the clergy. Washington was satisfied with that kind of “plural establishment” and showed it also in his decision to permit every Army regiment to select a chaplain from the denomination of its choice. Wills reproduces Washington’s opinion on this matter, as though it buttressed his point. Perhaps he thinks it does because he understands Washington’s toleration as issuing not from the policy of promoting piety but from hostility to religion, tempered by the expectation of its demise. Wills’s Washington is, after all, a Creature of the Enlightenment, differing from Robespierre only in his circumstances.
The most practically useful review of Cincinnatus would consist of four words: “Read Marcus Cunliffe instead.” George Washington: Man and Monument, now available in a revised edition as a mass-market paperback, is a pleasure to read and it should stir the reader to thought. It offers a succinct, well-proportioned biography of Washington and a balanced and therefore deeply appreciative appraisal of his deeds and character. The two good things in Wills’s book- the portrayal of Washington as a classical or neo-classical hero and as a self-made object of didactic art-were set forth clearly and judiciously by Cunliffe. Wills tries to bend them to his own purpose.
With what success? Washington’s exemplification and inculcation of public-spiritedness reflect his conviction that it is an indispensable, though not sufficient, condition for a healthy republic. Again and again-in pacifying restless unpaid officers, in promoting canal-building, in combating sectional animosities-he made duty and interest march together. The “stern virtue” of those “who could neither be distressed nor work into a sacrifice of their duty” is, he knew as well as Publius, “the growth of few soils.” The accommodations to self-interest that are required are made tolerable by understanding the value of public-spiritedness to lie above all in its forwarding of the public good and in understanding the public good to consist in the security of private rights. The pursuit of private interest within the limits imposed by the private rights of others was respectable enough to be engaged in by Washington himself, exemplary as always. Wills makes much, indeed almost everything, out of Washington’s departures from public life. But he avoids understanding them as teaching that in some sense the private is that for the sake of which the public exists. Wills makes much, indeed almost everything, out of Washington’s departures from public life. But he avoids understanding them as teaching that in some sense the private is that for the sake of which the public exists. (Washington was fond of quoting “The post of honour is a private station,” from Addison’s Cato, without regard to the qualification: “When vice prevails, and impious men bear away.”) Those departures are treated merely as examples of Washington’s selflessness-selflessness for its own sake, which seems to be what Wills cherishes as “communitarianism.”
A final point; George Washington said little against slavery; none of it, so far as I can recall, in public. What he did against slavery was to act, in his characteristic paradigmatic way, by providing for the freeing of his slaves. Carry Wills dwells on this with satisfaction. But how does he or can he explain it? “There was one horrible blot on this idyllic world of the southern farmer,” he writes, and it was-not slavery-“slaves.” One might think that these black folk added just the right touch to the picture, and in any case that they were necessary conditions of that “idyllic world.” Washington could not have found a model for his anti-slavery principles in the republicanism of Rome, nor would he have found any encouragement for his project in the Enlightenment “communitarianism” of Rousseau. I call this to the attention of those who might feel that the “individualism” that called forth the employment of Washington’s heroic virtue is something too mean and base.