Sept. 26, 2009
Ive just received news that the most respected editor of the Papers of George Washington—a collection to goes to fifty volumes—has died. My alma mater, University of Virginia, announced the passing of William Wright Abbott III. He was 87.
Mr. Abbott (all the profesors at U.Va. were called mister, in deference to Mr. Jeffersons republican manners) was revered around the Grounds. The official announcement said:
Abbot was hired as the James Madison Professor of History at U.Va. in 1966, serving twice as chairman of the Corcoran Department of History. Although he retired from the University in 1992, he continued to edit individual volumes of the Washington Papers until 1998, when nearly 50 volumes were in print.
“I often heard him remark that interpretations come and go, but that a properly edited set of historical papers can inspire scholars for generations to come,” said U.Va. colleague H.C. Erik Midelfort, C. Julian Bishko Professor of History Emeritus. “Bill brought to his editing task a seasoned, literate sense of what a good edition requires: skill, knowledge and tact.
I had special reason to respect Mr. Abbott: He taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned about politics and, in the process, helped my marriage. I interviewed Bill Abbott in Charlottesville in the mid-eighties. All the talk then was of the recently discovered gender gap. Liberal journalists had noted that President Ronald Reagan was less popular among women voters than among men. Liberal politicians sensed an opportunity. They encouraged Fritz Mondale, the Democratic nominee in 1984, to name a woman to his ticket. He did so. And promptly lost forty-nine states.
When I spoke with Mr. Abbott, however, he noted that George Washington was the first candidate to benefit from a gender gap. I laughed. Respectfully, I hope. Youre kidding, sir, I answered, women couldnt even vote in the 1780s. Bill Abbott indulged me like an upstart First-Year history student.
Actually, some women could vote in the early republic. A few elderly spinsters and widows who met property requirements were eligible in some states. But that was not Abbotts major point.
Even though most women did not vote, their voices were heard. Mr. Abbott said if George Washington had run in a modern presidential election, he would have won 70% of mens votes. But there would still have been a stubborn 30% of men voters—some well-known like Sam Adams, John Hancock, George Mason, and Patrick Henry—who might have opposed him.
Mr. Abbott then told me that in thirty years of studying George Washington, he had never encountered a single letter, diary entry, poem, or note by an American woman that was anything less than fully supportive of His Excellency, General Washington. One hundred percent positive.
So, how did George Washington do it? It was not the fact that he was the best horseman and the most skillful dancer in America—although that surely did not hurt. It may have been the fact that he loved the company of the ladies, always noticed them, always spoke with them, and formed many enduring friendships with women.
Probably, Washingtons solid support from women came from his titanic self-control. He had a fierce temper, it was known, but he kept it under an iron discipline. During the Revolutionary War, some young hotspurs had publicly urged General Washington to line Tories up against the wall and shoot them, to make an example of those who consorted with their British occupiers. Washington would have none of it. Nor would he burn American towns rather than let the enemy take them.
Perhaps a great part of Washingtons appeal was his devotion to home and hearth. He let it be known he would rather be at Mount Vernon with Lady Washington than dine with the King of France.
Certainly, Washingtons faith in God was an important factor. Then, as now, women sense this about a man and appreciate it.
Ronald Reagan appreciated Washingtons stellar qualities, too. Several years ago, I had occasion to tell Mr. Edwin Meese, the Presidents loyal lieutenant, that the online members of AOL had voted Ronald Reagan the greatest American. (It was a dicey competition, since Reagan had to beat out such candidates as Madonna and Michael Jackson.) Mr. Meese was stunned: He [Reagan] didnt think so. He thought George Washington was the greatest American.
So do I. And its a tribute to Ronald Reagan that in his humility, he was inspired by George Washington. I thank God for the great devotion of Professor William Abbott. He not only taught me about Washington and the gender gap, he also taught me to listen very closely to my wifes opinions about public figures. Shes usually right.