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George Washington by Paul Johnson

  • October 10th, 2013

Paul Johnson’s Socrates was my first taste of his work in a series of potted ‘Eminent Lives’. It whetted the appetite for biography-lite. They are a perfect length for their explicit purpose – inspiration.
The Washington book is even more accessible. It fits perfectly one morning’s insomnia. I now want to read more of Washington’s reflections directly, on governing and constitutions.

Johnson’s work is long enough to set out extraordinary facts (for example, at age 17 leader of a survey party in dangerous territory, by 22 years commander of soldiers that fired the shots that started Britain’s first world wide war with France) but not long enough to get bogged down in recounting or rebutting all the detail of controversies.

Johnson’s writing makes learning effortless. And with his vast perspective he spares us the modern moralising that passes for warts and all biography. There is reference to controversies. For example we learn about the slave owning that tortured Washington’s conscience and exceeded even his capacity to find a way through the policy dilemma. We get a sense of what is likely to engross professional historians, but Johnson largely spares us the ritual apologies or condemnations of the modern academic for the gaps between the subject’s moral universe and today’s pieties.

And it is inspiring (if one can overcome the humbling).



ok if you won’t write about anything else Stephen. George Washington was just a slave owner and a military person. Big deal. Lincoln came later and was was a madman determined to refuse the South their independence .

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