“Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation” was authored by Richard Norton Smith, a historian whose background includes work at six presidential libraries. He is currently Scholar-in-Residence of History and Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia.
Richard Norton Smith’s biography of Washington was published in 1993, at a time when he felt there was not a comprehensive single-volume work focused on Washington’s presidency. In the two decades since its publication, there have been several excellent single-volume biographies of Washington published (though focused on his entire life), most notably by Joseph Ellis in 2005 and Ron Chernow in 2010.
“Patriarch” is a book about which I am unavoidably ambivalent. For one thing, his biography fulfills a mission that is rather unique: it focuses almost exclusively on the eight years of Washington’s presidency, defining the man in terms of his performance in office rather than building him up on the basis of an ambitious youth which later translated into war and politics.
Much to my delight, the biography is also replete with details I had not come across in the other seven books on Washington I’ve read thus far. Although I recall none which were critical in getting to know Washington, they were of no less interest than the day-to-day details on Washington I encountered in the other biographies.
On the other hand, “Patriarch” struck me as meaningfully less fluid and readable than the other Washington biographies I’ve encountered. The text is often dense and dry and, frankly, a great deal less “fun” to read. Nothing against his capabilities as a historian, but Smith is simply not the storyteller that you find in Chernow, Ellis or Ferling.
In addition, I am most content when consuming history in a reasonably chronological fashion. Unfortunately, the structure and flow of “Patriarch” was often fairly difficult for me to follow. Although on a large scale the biography does proceed chronologically, it feels a bit like a mature river meandering back and forth, not always certain where it wants to flow.
Richard Norton Smith is clearly a knowledgeable historian and vigorous fan of the US presidency, appearing not infrequently on television to impart a healthy dose of wisdom and interesting presidential trivia. But although “Patriarch” seems to fulfill its author’s goal of analyzing Washington on the basis of his eight-year presidency, it ultimately left me less than fully satisfied.
The biography’s scope seems needlessly limited, and by design leaves exploration of Washington’s evolution as a person and as a great political figure somewhat stunted. Other biographies more fully examine Washington’s entire life and are therefore able to make more meaningful and sweeping conclusions.
The closest comparison to “Patriarch” in my library is “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph Ellis which, though of comparable length, is more expansive in scope, more penetrating in analysis and much more easily absorbed. For that reason among others “Patriarch” rests comfortably on my bookshelf but is unlikely to serve as one of my “go to” biographies on Washington.
Overall rating: 3 stars