J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Longmore’s Invention of George Washington

In 1771 George Washington ordered a bookplate incorporating his family coat-of-arms to be engraved and asked for more than 400 printed copies. He didn’t have anywhere near 400 books at the time. But he planned to make himself into a gentleman with a big library.

That fact comes from The Invention of George Washington, by Paul K. Longmore, which became one of my favorite books about Washington when I was working on my study for the National Park Service. That book was published by the University of California Press in 1988 and is now available in paperback from the University of Virginia Press.

Longmore painted “a portrait of Washington as a self-fashioning representative of his turbulent time,” as the book cover states. As a younger son from the lower colonial gentry, he shaped himself to succeed within his society. The aloof, always correct image that’s come down to us, Longmore argued, isn’t just a creation of Washington’s family or admiring historians. It was how Washington ultimately invented himself.

The first stage in that process was as an hard-working and frankly pushy young officer from Virginia. Basically every complaint that Washington as general had about uncooperative officers in the Revolutionary War could also be applied to Washington as colonel in the French and Indian War. It’s remarkable how marriage to Martha Custis calmed down that ambitious young man.

In Chapter 14, Longmore reexamined the Continental Congress’s choice of Washington as commander-in-chief of its army. Many historians have taken John Adams’s memoirs and later letters as their main source for that moment, retelling how Adams, as he suggested Washington to be commander-in-chief, saw the big Virginian slip out the door while John Hancock grew angry at being passed over.

There are problems reconciling that anecdote with the contemporaneous record and other delegates’ recollections, Longmore pointed out. For example, Adams described a lot of opposition to Washington, naming such delegates as Edmund Pendleton as arguing against the choice. But many of those men actually favored Washington, and he treated them as supporters: that month the new generalissimo asked Pendleton to write both his will and his acceptance speech. The whole story falls too easily into Adams’s pattern of recalling more opposition to himself than we can see through other sources.

Longmore hypothesized instead that Adams mixed up his memories of arguing for Washington as commander-in-chief (which probably produced little opposition) with arguing for Charles Lee to be another high-ranking general (which contemporaneous sources, including Adams’s letters, show was controversial). A big reason I admire Longmore’s book is his willingness to go against received wisdom like the Adams story.

I didn’t realize until this year how much effort Longmore had to put into the book, however. Longmore contracted polio when he was seven years old and lost the use of both hands. He needed a ventilator to breathe for much of the day. When he wrote, he held a pen in his mouth and punched a keyboard with it. The Invention of George Washington took ten years to finish.

After that biography was published, Longmore burned a copy in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles to protest how royalties from it would reduce his Social Security disability payments, thus discouraging him or other disabled people from doing creative work. (Those rules were later changed.)

Longmore became a professor at San Francisco State University. He specialized in the study of disability in American history, helping to establish that historical field. He coedited the anthology The New Disability History: American Perspectives and published the collection Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability.

Longmore died in 2010 at age sixty-four. The Institute on Disability he co-founded at San Francisco State is now named after him. Earlier this year, Longmore’s colleagues completed the publication of his last history book, Telethons.


Chaucerian said...

Wow. And here I was complaining to myself this morning about having to do four errands. What an amazing man, Longmore. Thank you.

Independent Thoughts said...

Thank you for this intriguing review. I'll add it to my Christmas wish list!

Byron DeLear said...

I very much appreciate Longmore's book on Washington~! great book. I thought his take on implicit "acts of sovereignty" was very useful in my own research for Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill. BTW, John, I may be joining you all in Boston to speak at the flag raising event on News Year's Day again this year.

"Historian Paul K. Longmore, in The Invention of George Washington, likens the general’s role during this time as an orchestrator of implicit 'acts of sovereignty':

'In October, a congressional committee huddled with him [Washington] at Cambridge to hear his recommendations. The alterations he proposed would move the United Colonies much farther down the road toward independence. Congress adopted every one. The army would be augmented. Courts-martial would have authority to enforce stricter discipline by imposing stricter punishments. Captured British spies would face the death penalty. Mutiny and sedition by officers and soldiers in the Continental Army would now also be tried as capital crimes. These last two acts, voted by Congress in the first week of November, were implicitly acts of sovereignty by an independent nation. They had originated with the commander-in-chief.'"