George Washington has a unique place in American history. The first President, the leader of our armies against the dastardly British during the Revolutionary War, and a man whose reputation for honesty is enshrined in legend with the story of the cherry tree about which he could not tell a lie.
In these days of a 24-hour feeding frenzy of news, gossip and speculation, it’s comforting for people to have someone immutable, a benchmark of integrity to lean on in troubled times. Everyone has different heroes they look to for inspiration from the “good old days” before anyone of note was instantly devoured by muckraking piranhas intent on showing the clay feet of people in power. Washington has been largely immune from this process, due to his inclusion in the pantheon of heroes.
Two books by Marvin Kitman’s, George Washington’s Expense Account and The Making of the Prefident (sic), aim to look at George the man, warts and all, by examining the papers and notations written by and about General Washington, in an attempt to give us a clearer portrait of the great man. I’ll be reviewing both.
George Washington’s Expense Account, written by Marvin Kitman and, as he says, co-authoring with Washington himself, looks at the financial records kept by the General during the War. He famously refused to be paid for his service as leader for the duration of the conflict, but what few may know is that he asked the Congress of the time to pay his expenses incurred during the fighting and submitted a bill at the end of the War. Items such as horses, clothing, washing, and “secret services” were all meticulously recorded in Washington’s own book, each listed down to the penny.
I’m hopeless at numbers personally, but even the innumerate can follow the notes and ideas Kitman sets out with regard to Washington’s entries. He writes with humor at all times, paying tongue-in-cheek deference to his famous subject at all times, and often showing admiration of Washington’s apparent financial brilliance. He also never suggests that Washington was anything but determined to the war effort, though some questions are asked about the sometimes-puzzling entries in the account.
He also sprinkles words of wisdom for writing an expense account, such as: If you get stuck in a shoestring operation, charge for the shoestring. Clearly the adroit manipulation of money that fills the papers with scandal are just the latest evolution of a tradition of financial chicanery that’s been going on since the very beginning.
Some might object to any type of mudslinging at such a legendary figure as George Washington, but I can assure you that nothing of the sort takes place. In fact, after reading this book Washington comes across as much more human and approachable, someone I’d actually want to meet, as opposed to the cold marble bust he usually seems in the history books.
As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.