Reviewed by Ed Lengel
In the 223 years since he died on December 14, 1799, George Washington has been reinvented thousands of times to suit different audiences and points of view. There is nothing remarkable about this. Washington anticipated the symbolic importance that his deeds and identity would have on the future United States, and so he carefully managed his actions—and how he maintained (and sometimes destroyed) his records—with a view to posterity. In the end, his great deeds in the service of his country spoke–and continue to–for themselves. Still, Washington was human, and carried his flaws, and scars, like any of the rest of us.
In the century after his death, some biographers and historians have preferred to overlook Washington’s weaknesses. Americans spent the nineteenth century nation-building and clung to the Founder’s immaculately symbolic presence as a unifying force. In the aftermath of World War I, however, with the United States firmly established and seemingly inviolable, Americans entered a more self-reflective and cynical era. As the Jazz Age challenged conventions, so did now-forgotten historians such as W.A. Woodward and Rupert Hughes turn gimlet eyes on Washington to expose his peccadillos real and alleged. Once a paragon, he became a loutish, amoral country bumpkin who “hobbled” to greatness as much as he achieved it. Woodward, Hughes and others also began to look more critically at Washington’s treatment of the hundreds of enslaved African Americans held on his estate.
Reaction inevitably set in. After some decades in which historians, afraid of seeming to over-praise the Founder, reduced him to a dry and distant figure, Washington reemerged triumphantly in the 1970s and beyond to what critics called “Founders chic,” which began to take hold in the American imagination. Following the works of David McCullough and other popular historians and filmmakers, Washington (with Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton), once again shone as a Great Man whose accomplishments reverberated through the ages.
Now, however, we have not only entered a cynical age, but one that is highly charged and profoundly divided politically. Historians and self-identified “historians,” almost uniformly with ulterior political motives, have taken to stalking the Founders with no good intentions, seeking to “expose” their weaknesses to a new, self-righteous age determined to separate itself from the past. Publishers who enthusiastically published “Founders chic” books in the 1990s churn out these new works for the same reasons: the public likes them. Not so much because these books present anything new; one of their unifying qualities is that they rehash old topics as if they were new discoveries. The key elements to the overwhelming success of the Founders-bashers are, rather, twofold. First, Americans have become so overwhelmingly ignorant of their own history that they cannot distinguish—and indeed, don’t care to demarcate—between old and new; true and false. Second, and most important, the current fashion of denouncing the past and those who lived in it absolves everyday Americans from the responsibility of looking at themselves in the mirror. Instead of recognizing that we are prone to the same human faults as all our ancestors, we can preen ourselves on the delusion that we have achieved Infallible Virtue. Rather than exalting George Washington, we exalt ourselves.
That’s the context to keep in mind when considering Never Caught. Highly praised by journalists and academe since its release in 2017, the book uses the drama of the Washingtons’ “relentless” pursuit of Oney Judge, one of a number of slaves who fled Mount Vernon while George and his wife Martha (who has also been reinvented countless times) lived there. Widely recognized since the nineteenth century and written about dozens of times previously, this episode has achieved new potency today for predictably political reasons. As such, reviewers describe Dunbar’s retelling as a brilliantly “new” revelation, drawing a story out of history’s “shadows” and shedding light on our “flawed republic” with a kind of “mysterious power” (to conflate quotations from several different plaudits).
The truth is more prosaic than Dunbar, or her often ideologically motivated reviewers, would have us believe. George and Martha, who like many other people before and since, were taught from infancy to believe in the institution of slavery and could not for much of their lives imagine a world, or even their Virginia estate, without slaves. Our modern western world—so convinced that it has achieved a state of unprecedented enlightenment even if it is somehow unable to square that belief with the continued preponderance of moral evil among us today—recoils with horror at the “intense manhunt” the Washingtons launched to recapture Oney Judge, their cook Hercules, and other slaves. George and Martha did so, not because they were red-eyed monsters, but because they believed—with reason—that a lackadaisical pursuit would encourage their other slaves to flee in hopes that no attempt would be made to get them back. This is no revelation, but simply a window on the ease with which people then (as now in innumerable ways) bought into societal wrongs. The Holocaust offers countless similar lessons. What sets George Washington apart from so many of his peers is that toward the end of his life he came to recognize slavery as a moral evil and turned against it.
To examine the Oney Judge story too closely, however—shedding light not just on the misdeeds of those who lived in the distant past, but on the fundamentally human characteristics that made those mistakes possible—risks turning the spotlight on us. And that is something our moral conceit has made us determined to avoid at all costs. Far preferable, then, to wag our fingers at George and Martha Washington and other denizens of the past so that we may gaze at our reflections and assure ourselves of how wonderful we seem to look in contrast.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.