Paul Johnson’s brief biography George Washington, The Founding Father is his contribution to Harper Collins’ Eminent Lives series. Johnson is a talented writer and the book is a typical example of his crisp clear prose.
Unfortunately, Johnson fails to offer any insights or unique perspectives on the events he covers. The book recounts the high points of Washington’s career and his historical achievements. It appears to be based on little if any original source material. The bibliography in the back of the book cites other biographers, such as Douglas Southall Freeman and David Hacket Fisher among others.
Overall, the book is very light on detail, and references some things as fact, which were disputed by Chernow in his recent book. In particular is Johnson’s contention that Washington instantly grasped a matchless opportunity “to strike the enemy in the most vulnerable quarter” by attacking Yorktown in concert with Admiral De Grasse. Chernow sheds more light on this and points out that Washington may have indulged in a rare (for him) bit of revisionist history. According to Chernow, Washington did not immediately grasp the advantages of the Yorktown attack, but was set on going after New York. It was the French who convinced him to do otherwise.
This book does not meet Johnson’s normal high standards. It is tempting to excuse this deficiency on the basis of the format of the series and the necessary brevity of the book. However, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s First in Peace is about the same length, but unlike Johnson’s The Founding Father, is filled with interesting, thoughtful analysis and unique research.
It is probably fair to say that Johnson’s book suffers in comparison to the recent Chernow biography of Washington, reviewed here. However, even taken on its own merits, this book is too cursory a treatment of Washington to provide much value to the knowledgeable reader, or to anyone who knows little about the subject.