This book was originally published in 1842 by the American Sunday School Union – ASSU. It has been reprinted by Attic Books, evidently replicating the original look, with a faux leather binding and the look of hand cut pages. It was written by Anna C. Reed, a niece of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The typography is clean and the paper is high quality, making it a pleasure to page through.
In the front papers the reader is confronted with this “advertisement”:
The historical portion of this volume is extracted from the best authorities; but it has been deemed unnecessary to introduce references.
When presented with such a statement the modern reader is inclined to skepticism. However, upon reading the book, it becomes clear that, with regard to historical accuracy, this little volume does not conflict with the facts presented in more scholarly works. In fact many of the documented anecdotes and episodes presented in David McCullough’s 1776, Stanley Weintraub’s General Washington’s Christmas Farewell, or Andrew Allison’s The Real George Washington, are accurately recounted in this Life of Washington.
The next thing to realize is that this book was written with two purposes, the first was to convey a historical record of the nation’s founding, with particular emphasis on the role that George Washington played. As a history or biography, the book provides an excellent overview, but by virtue of its brevity, is not an in-depth or complete history. Many of the Founders who played an integral role in Washington’s life are nearly (Jefferson, Adams) or entirely (Hamilton) absent.
But, when one considers the other purpose of the book (perhaps its primary one), which was/is to provide a vehicle by which to instruct youth on the importance of morality, using Washington as the exemplar; then the incompleteness of the historical record is more understandable.
Reed’s Life of Washington covers a lot of territory in just short of 300 pages. The book begins by setting the historical context of the American Revolution, starting with brief accounts of Columbus in 1492, John Cabot in 1496, John Smith in 1607, and the settling of the colonies by the likes of William Penn and Lord Baltimore.
The stage now set, the book’s main character enters the scene. Reed gives a brief accounting of Washington’s parentage and youth. It is here that the reader is presented with the Sunday school commentary that weaves through many of the events portrayed in Washington’s life.
The ubiquitous story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” is relayed here. However, it is presented in a much more plausible form than in the “I cannot tell a lie” versions that used to be taught in elementary school. In this version, young George Washington does not chop down the tree.
The story is, that he was playing with a hatchet, and heedlessly struck a favourite fruit tree in his father’s garden. Upon seeing the tree thus mutilated, an inquiry was naturally made for the author of the mischief, when George frankly confessed the deed, and received his father’s forgiveness.
The author takes this opportunity to point out
that much of the injustice and oppression, which are seen in the intercourse of men with each other, shows only the maturity of habits which were formed in childhood At home, or in school, or on the play-ground, instances of unfairness and fraud are often seen, which, among men, would be regarded as gross violations of law and right. Washington in his boyhood was JUST.
This biography is interspersed with such lessons and precepts as may be derived from the Life of Washington. This book is of a genre that has all but disappeared and takes a little getting used to, especially for the reader of more contemporary works of biography.
The book’s religious bent does not detract from the innate truth of the principles it seeks to impart to the reader. Even non-religious readers should be able to appreciate the wisdom of these lessons. In discussing Lafayette’s return to France, Reed offers the following contrast between the American Revolution and that of France:
Desiring anxiously that his native country should be freed from the tyrannical government which oppressed it, Lafayette felt a deep interest in the revolution which soon commenced in France; but his heart must have been pained by the manner in which it was conducted. In the attempt to throw off the oppression of man, the restraints of morality were cast away, and human passions raged uncontrolled. The consequences were dreadful; the tenderest ties of nature were disregarded, — the worship of God abolished. So that whilst this country, which looked to the Divine blessing for liberty, received it, France has ever since that time been unsettled and unhappy, and often the scene of civil war and bloodshed.
Whether or not you agree with the assertion of God’s participation in the formation of this government, the Founders did. There were signal differences between the French and American Revolutions. In the American Revolution, a system of government was formed that acknowledged God’s role but did not impose it. In the French Revolution, God was systematically extirpated from public and even private life. In doing so the restraints of morality were cast away.
It is very interesting to reflect and compare this book with the premises of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Although this book was written for use in Sunday Schools, it does not conflict with the what Meacham had to say about the inextricable influence and inclusion of “public” religion in government.
In conclusion, Life of Washington will probably delight the Christian reader. It may appear quaint or anachronistic to Libertarians, and will likely be unreadable to those who would find themselves comfortable amongst the revolutionaries of France, e.g. today’s Progressives.
On that subject, thoughtful readers might compare the French and American Revolutions and their subsequent outcomes. Both were waged against monarchies that taxed heavily and oppressed their citizens. However, the Americans fought to preserve the freedoms “endowed by their Creator,” against the rapacious state. The founding documents reflect that purpose as well as a profound suspicion of unbridled government power. The French, on the other hand, influenced by the radical philosphers of the time, fought to establish social justice which the state, guided by reason and the collective will, would provide and enforce.
This small, concise book manages to hit most of the more significant events of the American Revolution and provide a great overview of this time in American history. Whatever other conclusions may be drawn are up to the reader.