Remembering Washington Irving’s Life of George Washington

TOPICS: George Washington, Historiography, Short Biography

by William M. Ferraro, Senior Associate Editor
June 22, 2018

George Washington’s towering stature as a historical figure has attracted several multivolume biographical treatments. John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington . . ., 5 vols. (Philadelphia, 1804-7)—which enjoyed full support from Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon and was given control of his uncle’s papers—initiated such works. Probably the best known today are two 20th-century efforts: Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, 7 vols. (New York, 1948-57); and James Thomas Flexner, George Washington, 4 vols. (Boston, 1965-69). Freeman’s biography commands attention for its thorough research and graceful writing. Flexner’s study draws readers through bold assertions and colorful prose.

Washington Irving, from James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 7 vols. (New York, 1888–1900).

Most famous for comic literature and fictional tales such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving (1783-1859) undertook his Washington biography at the end of his distinguished career. Irving demonstrated commendable care and diligence in his research. He gathered pertinent documents from descendants of Washington and the great man’s friends. Travelling from his home—styled “Sunnyside”—in the lower Hudson River Valley near Tarrytown, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., Irving examined the archives in the U.S. State Department and visited John Augustine Washington, who then owned Mount Vernon. On this trip, Irving also sought an audience at Arlington with Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis, “who has many personal recollections of Washington which he is fond of relating.”1

Irving worried that his writing did not capture the full reality of his subject and the historic period that Washington shaped so profoundly. Positive comments on his draft from a nephew and a niece provided welcome encouragement. Irving thanked them both in late June 1853, noting to his nephew Pierre M. Irving: “I begin to hope that my labor has not been thrown away. Do not make a toil of reading the manuscript, but take it leisurely, so as to keep yourself fresh in the perusal, and to judge quietly and coolly of its merits and defects.”2 A glowing review from R. Shelton Mackenzie that was printed  in a newspaper received similar appreciation from Washington Irving: “It is deeply gratifying to meet with such approbation at such hands.”3

Despite his declining health, Irving soldiered on with his biography and completed the fifth and final volume not long before his death. Well-regarded by contemporaries, a much-later study of the work similarly credited Irving with creating a “complicated narrative” of “rugged individuals” in “widely separated areas” who found “ways somehow to put selfish interests behind them to work for a common cause.”That reassessment also praised Irving for portraying Washington as “a flesh-and-blood general, and president, not any Olympian demi-god.” However one felt about Irving’s “plummy style,” the volumes warranted a look.4

At the remarkable Gordon Avenue Library used-book sale held twice a year in Charlottesville, Va., I was able to purchase a lovely set of Irving’s Life of George Washington, published as the “Sunnyside Edition” in 1860, the year after the author’s death. The probable original owner, Helen R. Gardner, wrote on the flyleaf of the first volume: “commenced October 16th 1861 finished December 11th 1861.” My challenge is to find time amid my editing of The Washington Papers and other responsibilities to do likewise!


  1. Washington Irving to Pierre M. Irving, Feb. 6, 1853, in Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Jenifer S. Banks, eds., Washington Irving: Letters, Volume IV, 1846-1859 (Boston, 1982), 368-69.
  2. Irving to Pierre M. Irving, June 25, 1853, and Irving to Helen Dodge Irving, June 26, 1853, in Letters, 414-16.
  3. Irving to R. Shelton Mackenzie, Sept. 4, 1855, in Letters, 548-49. For Mackenzie’s review, see New York Times, June 4, 1855.
  4. Andrew Myers, “The New York Years in Irving’s The Life of George Washington,” Early American Literature 11 (Spring 1976): 68. For contemporary reviews, see The North American Review 83 (July 1856): 1-30, and 86 (April 1858): 330-58.