Five Great Books on George Washington

Five Great Books on George Washington October 1, 2013

Last week saw the opening of the long-awaited George Washington National Library at Mount Vernon. Washington himself seems to have had such a project in mind at the end of his life, when he wrote in 1797 that “I have not houses to build, except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting.” More than two hundred years later, that vision has become reality. (Most of Washington’s actual papers reside elsewhere, of course, such as the 65,000 documents held by the Library of Congress, many of which are digitized.)

Washington is arguably our greatest president, and the subject of innumerable books by everyone from Washington Irving to Glenn Beck. Where to begin in this avalanche of books? Here are five great books on Washington to get you started.

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life. This remarkable tome weighs in at more than 900 pages, but the definitive biography of Washington for this generation probably warrants such length. As I noted in a History News Network review, Chernow masters the literature on Washington and treats difficult subjects such as Washington’s faith with great subtlety.

Mary Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Life of George WashingtonSpeaking of religion, this is one of the best single volumes on Washington’s faith. Charting a middle way between the claims of secular and evangelical enthusiasts, Thompson concludes that Washington was a man of serious but guarded Anglican piety.

Jeffry Morrison, The Political Philosophy of George Washington. Yes, the general did have a political philosophy, which is lucidly and sympathetically unpacked here by a leading expert on religion and politics in the founding era.

Edward Lengel, Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory. In my review of Lengel at Books and Culture, I wrote that “Lengel spins a rollicking tale of the opportunists and outright deceivers who have profited from Washington’s memory. In the process, Lengel accomplishes a rare feat: he makes historiography fun.”

David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing. In a brilliant act of historical reconstruction, Fischer brings to life Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware and what it tells us about the American way of war.

There you have it! Surely readers have other suggestions, given the vast literature on Washington?

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  • brfranklin

    I would have named 4 of those 5 myself. If I had to change one, I would substitute Furstenberg’s “In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation” for Morrison’s book.

  • Randy

    Wait, you recommended to me Joseph Ellis – His Excellency: George Washington. And it was excellent and much appreciated! It was also shorter than Chernow, which worked better for me as I didn’t have the time to dig into all 900 pages.

    On a separate note – Mt Vernon was really cool. And I’m still struck by the fact that Washington’s grave (I know we have a monument) is a small affair off to the side, particularly compared to something like Napoleon’s tomb in Paris.

  • Thomas Kidd

    yes, Ellis would be choice 5a here!

  • Thomas Kidd

    good suggestion.

  • Ken Abbott

    Flexner’s classic “Washington: The Indispensible Man” still holds up pretty well.

  • dcarter888

    George Washington: The Crossing by Jack Levin