Citizen Washington

Written by William Martin
Review by Juliet Waldron

At 675 pages, this is a whale of a novel, but even if you aren’t already intrigued by this period, or particularly moved by the solemn face that stares from American’s most common paper bill, you will find yourself caught up in the insistence of this historically accurate narrative. The structure is reminiscent of Gore Vidal’s Burr. In 1802, we are introduced to a would-be writer who is dispatched by his uncle, a staunch partisan of Thomas Jefferson, to write a story which will “show Washington with all his warts.”

The eyewitnesses “interviewed” include all classes. We hear the narratives of slaves, Indians and soldiers who were occasional actors in Washington’s early, ill-fated military forays on the frontier. There are more obvious “sources,” such as his wife, Martha, and his personal physician. Other voices include the Marquis de Lafayette, John and Abigail Adams, Joseph Reed, and Alexander Hamilton. Surviving letters of the period are occasionally paraphrased into “narrative.” The strongest thread of recollection belongs to the cynical uncle, who lived through the French & Indian War under Washington’s command.

The politics of land and trade (as ever) dominated the era. All sides of the American equation are neatly rendered, although the leaps from voice to voice are sometimes irritating, especially in the later sections, which are heavily broken up. As for those “warts,” you won’t, in the end, find many. Citizen Washington shows us a man who truly does grow into his legend.