The Man Who Would Not Be George Washington

The Man Who Would Not Be George Washington
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“I once read an interview where the great American historian David McCullough said, “I try to write the kind of book that I would like to read.” That’s the goal I had in mind when I started this book. There is nothing more fun to do.” – Author Jonathan Horn speaking to Fox News about his book “The Man Would Not Be Washington”

Does America need another book about the Civil War? In the case of former White House speechwriter Jonathan Horn’s debut book, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, the answer is “yes.”

The book begins with the heroic exploits of Robert E. Lee’s father, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, during the American Revolutionary War. After describing the elder Lee’s calamitous business career and troubled personal life in the years after the war, Horn follows young Robert through West Point, his marriage to Mary Custis (step-great-granddaughter of George Washington) and his early service as a military engineer. The story continues with the legendary Confederate general’s leadership in the Civil War and ends in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee served as president of Washington College (now called Washington and Lee University) and died in 1870.

The combination of Horn’s graceful prose, nuanced portrait of Robert E. Lee and honest account of the many legacies Lee inherited from George Washington make The Man Who Would Not Be Washington (Scribner, 2015) a superb story of uniquely American proportions. In short, Horn has written a book we all should like to read. Below is a transcript of RealClearDefense’s recent conversation with author Jonathan Horn.

How did you come to write about the relationship between Robert E. Lee and George Washington?

JH: I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, an area filled with reminders of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Both men called the Potomac River home.

Lee was born downriver in Virginia’s Westmoreland County, near George Washington’s birthplace. Lee spent his childhood in Alexandria, the town closest to Washington’s Mount Vernon. And Lee married the daughter of Washington’s adopted son at Arlington House, the mansion across the Potomac from the city named for our first president.

Seeing those bonds made me want to explore how Lee could be so connected to Washington’s legacy and yet go to war against Washington’s greatest legacy, the Union.

“The Man Who Would Not Be Washington” centers on the life of Robert E. Lee, the Lee family and, consequently, military actions during the Civil War. And yet the legacy of George Washington forms the backdrop for this particular story. What should modern readers understand about 19th-century perceptions of the first President of the United States?

JH: George Washington died at the end of the 18th century, but he remained first in the hearts of 19th-century Americans. They hung his portrait in their homes and taught their children to emulate his virtues.

This culture surrounded Robert E. Lee his whole life because his father and his father-in-law both distinguished themselves for their devotion to Washington’s memory. Lee’s father, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, delivered the famous eulogy that enshrined Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, filled his home at Arlington with relics of Mount Vernon, where he had once lived under Washington’s care. 

“The country looked to Lee […] ‘as the representative of the Washington family.’” However, George Washington did have younger, male relatives, including one who served as an aide to Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, John Augustine Washington III. So how did Lee become the symbolic representative of the Washington family?

JH: The quotation you highlight came from a Lincoln administration emissary named Francis Blair, who offered Lee command of the main Union army being raised in April 1861. Blair told Lee that the country looked to him “as the representative of the Washington family.” Soon after, when Lee accepted command of Virginia’s armed forces, he was welcomed to Richmond almost as Washington’s second coming.

Lee did not speak this way about himself. Others forced the role upon him because at this critical moment leaders on both sides of the Potomac sought his service for command. Here, after all, was the man whom the U.S. Army’s ranking general had called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field,” and he so happened to be the son of Washington’s most famous eulogist and the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child. 

In his later years as president of Washington College, Robert E. Lee said, “The great mistake of my life was taking a military education (pg. 240).” What can you tell us about Lee’s feelings about his military service – and the Civil War writ large – during the final years of his life?

JH: Lee’s line about regretting “taking a military education” is so intriguing because Lee would never have become the Confederacy’s most famous general without that military education. And yet the same young man who heard Lee express that regret also heard Lee bristle at the notion that time spent in the Confederate army had been wasted.

Despite opposing secession, Lee did not express regret for his decision to follow his native state of Virginia and to turn down command of the main Union army. In fact, he altered his views on the constitutional issues involved after the war. He began claiming that “the leading men of the country” had always sanctioned secession, even though he previously had argued that the Founding Fathers had never intended to permit secession.

Nevertheless, Lee encouraged fellow Confederates to accept that the war had settled the question. “It the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result,” he wrote. “All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace.”

If you could make one book mandatory reading for today’s soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, what would it be? Similarly, what book would you choose for national security experts and defense intellectuals?

JH: Rather than recommend a specific book, I would recommend reading a specific genre: biographies. It is easy to fool ourselves into believing that history turned out a certain way because it could have turned out no other way. Biographies teach us that is not so. Biographies show us how the course of human history can pivot on the decision of one individual. That should infuse each of us with a sense of both responsibility and hope: responsibility for choosing our own destinies; hope for where those choices may lead us.

What will you work on next?

JH: I plan to write another book about American history. So many treasures have gone undiscovered; so many documents have gone unexamined; so many stories remain untold. A writer who loves American history never runs out of material because the story of our country just keeps getting longer.

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