James Atlas, the bow-tied editor in charge of HarperCollins’s “Eminent Lives” series of short biographies, is not known for his sense of humor, but in publishing Paul Johnson and Christopher Hitchens back to back, he’s revealed a mischievous streak that had previously gone unnoticed. Johnson, the New Statesman editor turned right-wing author of such bestsellers as Modern Times (1983), A History of the Jews (1987) and Intellectuals (1988), once denounced Hitchens for launching an attack on Mother Teresa that he termed “loathsome and mendacious.” Hitchens, the ex-Trotskyist turned supporter of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, has attacked Johnson over the years as not only a drunken, wife-beating, racist snob but a drunken, wife-beating, racist snob who, when not assailing the morals of others, has been known to enjoy a good spanking at the hands of his friendly local dominatrix. In short, not the sort of couple you’d expect to find sharing a candle-lit dinner at some quiet bistro. Yet here they are, together at last, with nearly simultaneous bios of two of America’s most sainted founders. Not altogether surprisingly, given Hitchens’s recent turn to the right, they even end up agreeing on a thing or two, most notably America’s role as a beacon of morality in a troubled world.
One cheers America from the right, the other from the center-left. Johnson’s book, unquestionably the duller of the two, is pretty much what you’d expect from a writer beloved of Norman Podhoretz, Newt Gingrich and Oliver North—worshipful, patriotic, eager to portray the first President as the ideological forerunner of today’s GOP. Washington, Johnson writes, imbued the United States with the sort of sterling-silver principles that have enabled it “to survive a near-fatal Civil War, to become the world’s largest economy” and “to take in the poor of the planet and turn them into the richest people in history.” The upshot at the dawn of a new millennium is that America is now “set to play the leading part in making the earth secure and democratic.” If you approve of one George W., apparently, you must approve of the other; and if you see the invasion of Iraq as anything less than a war for democracy, then you must oppose Washington and everything he stood for. “Washington played, and still plays, a unique role,” writes Johnson, “both as founding father and exemplar of moderation and wisdom”–two qualities that opponents of American imperialism apparently lack.
This is absurd, of course, but it is also unfair to Washington, who is less of a plaster saint and therefore more interesting than his biographer makes him out to be. For example, Johnson sneeringly dismisses suggestions that his subject was anything other than exemplary with regard to slavery and race. “Thousands of blacks served under Washington in the war,” he states, “and he was deeply impressed by their dogged courage and loyalty, and by the refusal of the great majority to take advantage of British offers to free them if they deserted.” Besides begging the question of why musket-toting slaves would not make a break for freedom as soon as they had the opportunity, this statement is seriously misleading. Eventually, Washington did come to appreciate the performance of black soldiers under his command. But he opposed the use of slaves, as Henry Wiencek shows in his monumental 2003 study An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, and even tried for a time to bar free blacks from the ranks as well. He also opposed a plan to offer slaves their freedom in return for military service–possibly, Wiencek argues, because he was preparing to sell a group of his own slaves at the time and was worried that such an act might drive down the price.
Johnson writes that Washington clothed his slaves well, “drew the line at hunting fugitive slaves with dogs” and “refused to punish them by whipping except in extreme cases” (whatever that might mean). The truth is once again very different. According to Wiencek–whom Johnson cites in his bibliography but otherwise ignores–“Washington’s own records indicate that the slaves were miserably clothed,” while those who had merely fallen short in their work were threatened with whippings. As for dogs, Wiencek says, they were employed on at least one occasion in 1773.