George Washington: America's First Action Hero?

The father of our country was adept at any number of talents.
The father of our country was adept at any number of talents.
Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association

Riding with George: Sportsmanship & Chivalry in the Making of America’s First President
By Philip G.
Smucker
384 pp.
Chicago Review Press
$26.99

George Washington – you know the guy, right? Father of Our Country; First President; slightly scowling, disapproving dude looking at you from the one-dollar bill or those Gilbert Stuart portraits.

That’s the image, sure. But historians have long argued that a more accurate picture takes into account how dashing, dynamic, bold, athletic and – well – ripped the 6’2” Virginian was. George Washington was America’s first Action Figure.

In this inventive book that’s part biography and part participatory journalism, Philip G. Smucker – Washington’s fifth-great grandnephew – retraces the very steps his famous ancestor took in his full life from teen government surveyor to Revolutionary War leader to President.

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And in it, he concentrates on how the man’s experiences in fox catching, hunting, fencing, fishing, reading, horsemanship, dancing, dressing and even gambling shaped his character and, in turn, the course of a young nation.

Part of the book is a detailed, fact-based biography of Washington during major moments in his life (though Ron Chernow’s tome remains the gold standard in this area). But the far more interesting chapters have Smucker not just writing about Washington’s pursuits, but engaging in them.

So the reader goes along with the journalist as he saddles up for his first fox hunt, takes ballroom dancing lessons, learns to use a sword and takes part in various war re-enactments, worried that his shoes don’t looked scuffed enough to pass muster for authentic period attire.

Smucker’s travels take him to many places, several in Virginia: Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, Trenton, Philadelphia, Savannah, Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and even the casino in Valley Forge, where he ponders what the Great Man would have thought of loudly ringing, neon-illuminated slot machines and a Krispy Kreme donut shop atop hallowed battlegrounds.

Perhaps the funniest segments have Smucker interacting with historical re-enactors who take the parts of Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the book’s subject. And who do not break character.

When he goes “lawn bowling” (hey, it was a popular sport of the day!) with “George Washington,” he is actually a bit intimidated.
And when Smucker dares to ask a probing question about Washington’s documented, long-lasting feelings of attraction for Sally Fairfax – married to one of his best friends and from a family who were his early benefactors – “George’s” steely gaze and curt response even have the writer gulping with fear.

Smucker writes how Washington had an innate sense of honor and duty. This was a man who put down 110 maxims to live and treat others by in a pamphlet called Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. However, Smucker does not shy away from discussing how Washington still owned slaves, not dismissing the practice despite his seeming “tough, but fair” approach as a master.

In the end, Smucker shows how multiple influences made Washington the military and political leader he was, with an emphasis on sportsmanship and high standards for personal/public conduct.

And it always seems to come back to George Washington’s equestrian skills – which saved him many times from certain death, especially on the battlefield. Though not all agree.

“I think it was just shit luck,” Smucker quotes a large, Native American re-enactor during one restaged skirmish. “Washington had that special gift, and he was just destined for greatness.”


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