George Washington at 280: We Still Don't Get Him

Article ID: 585446

Released: 13-Feb-2012 4:00 PM EST

Source Newsroom: University of Virginia

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  • Credit: Dan Addison/University of Virginia

    Edward G. Lengel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia.

Newswise — Edward G. Lengel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, is available for commentary about the Father of Our Country, whose 280th birthday will be Feb. 22.

Lengel is the author of "Inventing George Washington: America's Founder in Myth and Memory," published in 2011 by Harper. A reviewer in American History magazine writes:

"With grace, wit and detail, Edward G. Lengel … traces the fascinating trail full of unexpected switchbacks marking who and what we've thought Washington was."

Lengel says, "Since George Washington's death on Dec. 14, 1799, Americans have struggled to establish his place in the national consciousness. On one level, Washington has remained a bold and enduring but ultimately colorless national symbol – a statue, or a portrait on the dollar bill. On another level, the personal Washington has remained just out of our reach."

The search for Washington has generated scores of myths and legends that help people believe Washington belongs to them, whoever they are: Christian or secular, conservative or liberal, romantic or down-to-earth. "Washington legends often tell more about those who made them up than about Washington himself; but they make up a compelling part of the American tapestry," Lengel says.

Today's politicians and political activists – including Glenn Beck, John McCain, Al Gore and others – have used Washington, via falsified quotes and legends, to reinforce their political arguments, showing him variously as a gun rights advocate; a small government advocate; an isolationist; a marijuana user; an evangelical Christian.

To arrange an interview with Lengel, contact Marian Anderfuren, U.Va. Public Affairs, at 434-243-2293 or manderfuren@virginia.edu. Satellite studio facilities are available.


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