University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies

Charlottesville Center • Fall 2003 •  (434) 982-5313 •

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The Real George Washington

NCSS – 020 Course Syllabus


Primary Instructor and Course Coordinator: Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.

Senior Associate Editor / Associate Professor

Papers of George Washington

506 Alderman Library

(434) 9243569 (w)

(540) 9432979 (h)


7:00 9:00 p.m., Wednesdays, September 17 November 5 (eight sessions)

University of Virginia Grounds, School of Architecture, Campbell Hall, Room 158




Course Summary

George Washington’s name routinely shows up near the top of everybody’s lists of favorite presidents and most important military commanders. His image is everywhere, on the dollar bill, on the quarter, and on numerous stamps; and his memory is honored by a federal holiday. Yet, when asked, most people find it difficult to say anything meaningful, or even true, about him. This course will examine Washington’s life and career topically, stripping away the myths and embellishments to reveal a man of thoughts and action — real flesh and blood — and, yes, a hero for our time. 


Course Objectives

This series seeks to recapture what Washington’s contemporaries took for granted — and learn what they couldn’t know — about the American who dominated the historical stage of his era. Students will learn how a frontier surveyor became first a prominent planter, next a military commander, then a great statesman, and finally, The Father of His Country. In the end, they will know why someone wrote of Washington after knowing him for two days, “the more I am acquainted with, the more I esteem him.”


Course Delivery

A lecture series featuring the instructor, as well as guest speakers. The lectures will be topically focused, some including slides or computer presentations. Each meeting will include time for a discussion period.


Recommended Reading (one or more of the following books):

  • Don Higginbotham, George Washington Reconsidered (University of Virginia Press, 2001).
  • Paul K. Longmore, The Invention of George Washington (University of Virginia Press [reprint], 1999).
  • Robert F. Jones, George Washington: Extraordinary Man, Extraordinary Leader (Fordham University Press, 2002).

This course is designed as a lecture series rather than a traditional class, and the books are supplemental only and not necessary for the course itself. The Jones book is a very good straight-forward one-volume biography of Washington. Longmore's book is more of an interpretation of what went into the making of the man. The Higginbotham book is a collection of scholarly essays that attempts to represent recent Washington scholarship. Thus, if your knowledge of Washington is very limited, Jones may be best. If you have a pretty good grasp of Washington's life and actions, Longmore may be the book for you. Or, if you're wrapped up in historiography, then Higginbotham is the choice, especially as the limited number of meetings prohibits us from exploring much of the Washington-related scholarship. Personally, I find Longmore one of the most interesting books available on Washington. And perhaps, of course, you may want to read all three.

The books are in the regular downstairs book section at the University of Virginia Bookstore, not in the upstairs textbook section.

In addition to the suggested readings, the course lecturers all have Washington-related book publications:

  • Ragsdale, Bruce A. A Planters' Republic: The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia (Madison, Wisconsin: Madison House Publishers, Inc., 1996)
  • Henriques, Peter R. The Death of George Washington: He Died as He Lived (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 1999); George Washington (National Park Service, 2002)
  • Rees, James C. Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 1999)
  • Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)
  • Grizzard, Frank E. George Washington: A Biographical Companion (ABC-CLIO, 2002)


George Washington Sources on the Internet:

  • The Papers of George Washington (University of Virginia)
  • John C. Fitzpatrick's Writings of Washington
  • George Washington Papers (Library of Congress)
  • Letters of Delegates to Congress, 17741789
  • George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
  • George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation (Historic Kenmore / GW's Ferry Farm)

    Links to all at:


Class Meetings Schedule:

September 17

“First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen”: The Greatness of George Washington

Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.


This session will explore why Washington has been considered a “great man” by examining the conflation of Washington with his important achievements and the momentous events in which he was involved. This tendency to blur the man with his accomplishments and with his times began while Washington was yet alive, as his roles in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, at the Constitutional Convention, and as first President of the U.S., made him the most famous person in America. Subjects covered include Washington’s voluntary submission to civil authority, his vision of national unity, and his posthumous transformation into a demigod in the 19th century, as well as his some of his most noted personal characteristics: leadership, pragmatism, honesty, courage, and perseverance.



September 24

Indispensable Man: Washington as Military Commander

Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.


This lecture explores the question of whether Washington’s role in the American Revolution was an “indispensable” one. Topics covered include Washington’s lessons from the French and Indian War; his deference to civilian authorities; his political savvy; his role as an administrator; and his military and battlefield strategy and tactics.



October 1

The Young Washington

Bruce A. Ragsdale


This lecture will examine the early years of Washington’s life, including his education and brief surveying career as well as his growing interest in agriculture and colonial politics. The main focus will be on how the eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic economy affected Washington’s role as a Virginia tobacco planter, his successful transition from a tobacco grower to a wheat farmer and entrepreneur, and the relationship of his economic interests and revolutionary ideology.



October 8
Washington and Mount Vernon: An Enduring Legacy

James C. Rees


In this lecture the presenter discusses how Washington assembled the five-plantation, 6,000-plus acre estate known as Mount Vernon, its disassemblage upon his death in 1799, and the deterioration of the mansion house until it was saved on the eve of the Civil War by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. Mount Vernon’s important legacy is seen through the lens of the material culture that existed at the property in the 18th century and the attempts since to recover and preserve what has survived.



October 15

Washington as President

Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.


This lecture focuses on Washington’s three primary goals as first president: the establishment of a strong national government; the settlement of the nation’s finances, which meant protecting the new government’s credit while paying the debts left over from the Revolutionary War; and the management of foreign affairs, which consisted of maintaining peace with Great Britain, wresting control of the Northwest Territory while pacifying the numerous Indian nations scattered on the western frontier, and opening navigation of the Spanish-controlled Mississippi River to American shipping. Also discussed is Washington’s central role in the establishment and design of the Federal City on the banks of the Potomac River.



October 22

Washington and Slavery

Henry Wiencek


This lecturer probes Washington’s quandary of being the absolute owner and master of human slaves while simultaneously championing the Revolution that had “liberty” as its watchword. In the context of his research on the life of the slaves at the Mount Vernon plantations, the presenter explores the perplexing problems that the institution created for Washington, including the intermarriage of his slaves with those owned by the estate of his wife, the transporting of house servants into free states, the economic burdens of various emancipation schemes, and finally, Washington’s growing disillusionment with the slave system and his ultimate decision to set free his slaves in his will.



October 29

Washington and the Ladies

Peter R. Henriques


The emotional and private side of Washington is explored through the unusual approach of surveying Washington’s relationship with women, especially those of his wife Martha, his mother Mary Ball Washington, and his sister Betty Washington Lewis. Also explored are Washington’s early intimacy with Sally Fairfax and his later friendships with several women he met in public life, including the poet Phillis Wheatley and the English historian Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham.



November 5

“Now He Belongs to the Ages”: Washington’s Last Illness, Death, and Legacy

Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.


This final presentation takes an indepth look at Washington’s last illness and death, based on the contemporary accounts left by his private secretary and attendant physicians. It delves into the subjects that occupied Washington’s mind and time in the weeks and days before he suddenly fell ill, and discusses in detail the most current medical assessments of his final illness and death. It also explores the religious and philosophical underpinnings that Washington relied on in his last hours. The lecture series is closed with some final thoughts on Washington’s legacy in American history.



Parking Issues

Some parking issues have surfaced of which you should be aware. On October 8, the A-9 (Culbreth Theatre) lot will be reserved for the Film Festival. Students cannot park there, or they will be ticketed. We have reserved the A-6 lot (across the street from the Bayly, the first right past the big field if you are coming on Rugby from the Rotunda), which hopefully should accommodate everyone. This would be a good night to carpool or be dropped off!! On October 15 and November 5, the Bayly is having events. We will be sharing a reservation for both the A-9 and A-6 lots with the Bayly, on October 15, and with the A-9 lot on November 5, so parking should not be a problem. Basically, whenever you see a yellow "reserved" sign, check to see if it says The Real George Washington. If it does not, don't park there. If there is no sign, feel free to park in any of the lots. Each license tag number is allowed one warning ticket a year, so even if you get a ticket, don't pay it, if it's your first for the year.