Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review: THE RETURN OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Edward J. Larson (William Morrow/Harper-Collins, 2014)

"What?" the reader may ask upon reading the title of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson's new book.  "How could George Washington have returned from anything?"  A good question, indeed... because, as Larson makes clear in this study of Washington's life and public works from the end of the Revolutionary War until he became America's first President under the new Constitution, Washington never truly stepped off the stage or shucked the role of America's "indispensable man," even after he shockingly resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon for what he hoped would be a pleasant retirement as a gentleman farmer and land speculator.  Indeed, his influence wound up being a -- Larson would no doubt say "the" -- deciding factor in persuading citizens to accept the paper version of an unprecedented form of popular government.  The belief that Washington would inevitably be the first President and could be trusted to set a good precedent for conduct in office was, of course, widespread, but Larson also reveals just how "hands-on" Washington was in aiding and abetting the Federalist cause "behind the scenes" during the ratification process

The tribulations of the newly independent United States (plural emphasized) under the Articles of Confederation, like the fabled Corleones, kept pulling Washington back into public life even as he insisted that he was "out" for good.  A trip to his western landholdings convinced him that only a strong central government could preserve property rights, protect settlers, and encourage commerce in the back country.  (Washington's hope for a Potomac River canal never really materialized, but he certainly was on the right towpath.)  Interstate squabbles, the inability of Congress to convince states to monetarily support what central authority there was, "hyperdemocratic" and faction-riven state institutions such as the unicameral legislature of Pennsylvania, and, above all, the insurrection in Massachusetts that became known as Shays' Rebellion convinced Washington, and many other "like-minded" nationalists, that a proposed convention to "reform" the Articles of Confederation needed to literally start the process over from scratch, creating a governmental framework for a nation, as opposed to "the several states."

Always expressing his reluctance to be dragged into the world of politics, Washington nonetheless played a critical role as President of the Constitutional Convention, albeit one that hardly ever intersected with the actual debates taking place on the floor.  While both large- and small-state advocates got some of what they wanted in the final document, the sheer weight of Washington's presence -- and the delegates' inherent, and justified, trust in him to do the right thing by the country -- guaranteed that the primary influence would be nationalist/Federalist.  Indeed, Washington appears to have assumed something of a protective role towards the Constitution, believing it to be the only alternative to chaos, and he took a dimmer and dimmer view of the "Antifederalists" as the ratification debates proceeded.  Never to the point of literally trying to ram the Constitution down its opponents' throats, however; Washington realized that "Antifeds" had to have their say, that they would have to be part of the new nation, and that the debates should be conducted with what he called "moderation, candor & fairness."

I am an immense admirer of Washington and greatly appreciated this discussion of a (relatively) lightly examined period in the great man's life.  Larson's portrait of the general/statesman depicts a man with strong opinions, forcefully expressed, but whose modesty, character, and ethical sense kept him firmly grounded at all times, as he displayed conduct that all too few "revolutionary heroes" have imitated in the centuries since.

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