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How A Great Historian Studied A Great American

July 2024
1min read

Published here for the first time, Douglas Southall Freeman’s letters to the Carnegie Corporation telling of his research on Washington show

Douglas Southall Freeman was entering his fiftyeighth year when in 1944 he brought out the third volume of Lee’s Lieutenants , completing his great series of studies in Confederate history. From early manhood he had hoped that he might write the lives of three illustrious Virginians, Washington, Lee, and Woodrow Wilson. By 1944, still editor of the Richmond News Leader , lecturer at the Army War College, and first president of the Society of American Historians (not to mention other connections), he regretfully saw that, as he once told a friend, “I shall not reach Woodrow Wilson.” His ambition to pen a worthy life of Washington, however, persisted, and was encouraged by such associates as Raymond B. Fosdick, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Jackson Davis of the General Education Board. He therefore launched himself upon the task with such energy and enthusiasm that four years later he was able to publish the first volumes of George Washington: A Biography , with the subtitle “Young Washington.”

This was an undertaking which he enjoyed only less than the writing of his Robert E. Lee . In the end he was to finish six volumes of his magnificent series; a seventh would have completed it. Though he never doubted Washington’s greatness, he was at first disconcerted by some qualities evident in youth.

“You are quite right,” he wrote a friend, “in saying that he was not a likeable young man when he was thoroughly explored. Those who liked him did not know him fully. Dinwiddie, who knew him best, disliked him in the end. The great fact was that Washington grew. I have been very much surprised to see how substantial was the development in his character and the change in what would appear to have been his ‘temperament’ between 1759 and 1775.” As the real Washington emerged from his chrysalis, Freeman found him wholly congenial. It has been a great privilege, he said again and again, to spend one’s life in the company of two such gentlemen as Robert E. Lee and George Washington.

One of the men who took warmly appreciative interest in Freeman’s labors on the Father of his Country was Robert M. Lester, secretary of the Carnegie Corporation, which had been proud to assist in the costs of research. To him, as his biography grew, Freeman addressed a fascinating series of letters, chronicling his successive discoveries and the development of his ideas. AMERICAN HERITAGE is privileged by Mrs. Douglas Freeman, Mr. Lester, and the Carnegie Corporation to publish excerpts from this remarkable correspondence, revealing something of the working methods of one of the master historians of our time.

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