Book review: ‘George Washington’s America’ by Barnet Schecter


The most important items in George Washington’s library at Mount Vernon were maps. After his death in 1799, an inventory revealed that the library “contained more than ninety maps and atlases,” writes historian Barnet Schecter in his fascinating, novel approach to the life of the first U.S. president, “George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps” (Walker & Co.: 304 pp., $67.50). Understanding North American geography in every detail — roads, rivers, woods and mountain ranges — not to mention the continent’s context among its neighbors was vitally important to Washington because, the author argues, it “shaped his vision of America as ‘a rising empire in the New World.’”

Schecter’s book reveals the world that Washington saw, either through the maps of others (John Rocque’s 1762 general map of North America) or through his own: A map of Washington’s perilous 1753 river journey to help with colonial defenses against hostile French forces on the Ohio River is a reminder of Washington’s great skill as a surveyor. It was a skill, in fact, he used right until the end of his life when he surveyed his home at Mount Vernon, Va. (these maps are also included) as part of his last will and testament.

This is a lovely volume perfect not only for someone interested in Washington but also for the history buff looking for a fresh glimpse of early American life. What Washington confided to a friend in a 1767 letter about the right to land grants is as true for a nation as for a private individual: “Any person who neglects hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them will never regain it.”