Mason Biographers Discuss Lives of Their Subjects: Washington and Oppenheimer

Posted: October 6, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

George Washington and Robert Oppenheimer don’t have much in common, except that they were both leaders and charismatic personalities, said two Mason professors who gave their take on the two historic figures at Fall for the Book on Wednesday.

While one was referred to as “the father of our country” and one was “the father of the atomic bomb,” both men were larger-than-life characters who played central roles in American history.

Biographer Peter Henriques, associate professor emeritus of history, is an unabashed admirer of his subject, George Washington, without whom he feels the United States would not be a single unified country today. “He lived in an era as fractious as ours today,” said Henriques, but still managed to be unanimously elected and re-elected president.

Martin Sherwin and Peter Henriques
Martin Sherwin, left, and Peter Henriques signed their books after the talk.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

In his book, “Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington,” Henriques aimed to get at the heart of Washington’s personality. He talked about Washington as a man of “controlled passion,” which is revealed in his role as commander of the army and in key personal relationships. Moreover, said Henriques, Washington’s character embodied the four classical virtues: fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice. And even though Washington has been faulted for not freeing his slaves before his death, Henriques said he actually had a very progressive attitude toward slavery, “considering the standards of his time.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, on the other hand, was a conflicted character who spent his later years trying to reconcile his development of the atom bomb with its horrific effects. “It was a source of great pride and a real psychic problem for him,” said Martin Sherwin, history term professor and co-author with Kai Bird of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

Sherwin, who spent 25 years working intermittently on the book, which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography, said he was drawn to Oppenheimer both because of the triumph and tragedy of his life, as well as his anti-nuclear activism later in life. Sherwin began working on the book when Oppenheimer’s papers – 200 boxes of them – were made available through the Library of Congress shortly after his death.

Oppenheimer was a prodigy who lectured to a mineralogical society when he was 12. He was socially inept and physically awkward. Yet he blossomed as a quantum physicist and became director of the Los Alamos laboratory and the atom bomb, or Manhattan, project. “He took control of his personality and was constantly transforming himself,” Sherwin said.

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