April 17, 2004

GEORGE WASHINGTON IS AN ICON, and like most icons, he has attracted attention mostly from iconoclasts. But I just got a copy of David Hackett Fischer's new book, Washington's Crossing, which like Richard Brookhiser's earlier biography, Founding Father, makes clear that Washington was, in fact, a rather amazing guy. There's also a bit of an echo of the red-blue divide on the subject, as Fischer notes in a discussion of Emanuel Leutze's famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware:

In 1897, private collector John S. Kennedy bought the painting for the extravagant sum of $16,000, and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There it remained until 1950, when romantic history paintings passed out of fashion among sophisticated New Yorkers. It was sent away to the Dallas Art Museum in Texas, and then to Washington Crossing State Park in Pennsylvania, where it stayed until 1970.

Fischer then looks at the many "debunkers" of the painting, and observes that while they were sometimes (though not always) right about the details they debunked, "they rarely asked about the accuracy of its major themes." Indeed.

UPDATE: Here's a review of the book. And Ralph Luker has thoughts on the difference between nitpicking and debunking.