Of Virtue and Villainy

The ancient book of Ecclesiastes poses a short yet profound phrase that has been used in innumerable contexts for millennia: “what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” In other words, even though culture and technology change and political bodies rise and fall, human nature doesn’t change, at least not over the course of a few thousand years.

This maxim can be helpful in differentiating popular histories from professional academic works. What I mean by this is that writers often must simplify human nature in order to tell flowing and entertaining stories of the past that cater to their audience’s desires. Most often, they do this by portraying people and people groups in unrealistically extreme terms. Historian Ron Chernow, for example, villainizes those who criticize George Washington to portray him as what Peter Charles Hoffer calls an “unblemished paragon of virtue.”

Chernow accuses Mary Washington (the general’s mother) of being disrespectful toward her son and “dangerously erratic” in her slander of him (395-397). What did Mary do to deserve such criticism? She dared to ask for financial assistance during such a time of economic turmoil as the American Revolution. In his attempt to erase even the possibility of  finding George Washington guilty of neglect, Chernow ignores the fact that Mary was likely undergoing financial and personal strain, as she lived in a city which greatly suffered from wartime shortages, and was dealing with the mortal illness of her son-in-law who had recently poured most of his personal fortune into outfitting Revolutionary military operations, leaving Mary’s grandchildren in an unstable situation.

Home of Mary Washington During the American Revolution, Fredericksburg, VA
Photo by the Author

As another instance of such overgeneralization, historian-storyteller hybrid Francis Parkman attempts to portray all Native Americans as man-eating savages in order to communicate to readers one of the central tenants of his Victorian-Era history of the 7 Years War: that English culture’s dominance of the New World after the Treaty of Paris was entirely noble and of universal benefit to all inhabitants of North America. All nations have their faults, but it is a grave misunderstanding of human civilization to say that one society is inherently superior to all others in every way.

Clearly, the tendency to disparage or deify those who came before us is as ancient as nearly anything else “under the sun.”

Sources

The Holy Bible, New International Version (English Translation). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984

Chernow, Ron. Washington : A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Past Imperfect : Facts, Fictions, Fraud– American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. 1st ed. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004.

Parkman, Francis, and De La Vergne, Earl W. Montcalm and Wolfe. Little, Brown and Company, 1884.