The Return of George Washington – Book Review
The history books tell us what happened. After leading his rag-tag army to victory over the British Empire, George Washington resigned from command and went home to his beloved country estate of Mount Vernon. Six years later he reluctantly returned to public life, summoned like an eighteenth-century Cincinnatus from his farm, to serve as the leader of his nascent nation.
But historian Edward J. Larson proves that this story is mythology. Even the book’s title is delivered with a slight wink because Washington, Larson cogently explains, never really left. Whether Washington ever truly wanted to retire from a leadership role is uncertain; given his temperament he was an unlikely sort to leave the American Revolution half-finished and so seemed almost fated to govern the new country his efforts had helped craft. Whatever Washington’s feelings on the matter, though, the author makes one thing clear—the American people would not let him leave.
Larson begins his political biography with one of the most important scenes in our nation’s history, an event that truly transformed the world: the victorious General Washington resigning his military command to the Continental Congress. The very idea that he would give up control of the only army left in North America rather than use it to seize power was simply not believed. Everyone, even a number of Americans, expected a new King George; the previous one, George III, declared that if Washington yielded to civilian authority “he will be the greatest man in the world.” The American George did surrender his office and powers, and instantly he did become the greatest man in the world. His legacy and accomplishments were feted from Boston wharves to Parisian salons to the court of Catherine The Great.
How exactly could any man truly retire from public life in such an atmosphere? That Washington’s heart was in the quiet life of a country gentleman is made abundantly clear in Larson’s several passages dealing with the dinners he held for guests and the dances he especially enjoyed to attend. First in the hearts of his countrymen George Washington may have been, but he was also the first one onto the dance floor, and usually the last one to leave it.
Washington also possessed a financial motive to remain focused on private life; he was nearly broke. He had famously served without pay during the Revolutionary War. Now he returned to a plantation, the only source of income for him, that had suffered in his absence. As the author explains;
Washington had spent only ten out of the past three thousand days of war at his eight-thousand-acre working plantation and its finances were confused. Ledgers and records were topsy-turvy from having been hastily packed and unpacked every time British forces passed near enough to threaten the estate.
In a narrative that proves he is worthy of the Pulitzer Prize he received (for Summer Of The Gods), Larson weaves together Washington’s private problems with those facing the nation. After one of the best single-page histories of the American Revolution it is possible to produce, the author delves into the failings of the infant American republic. States had begun to print near-worthless paper money to settle all debts, and this strongly affected Washington the landowning businessman. Washington took a tour of frontier property he had invested in but had to cut the trip short when threatened by Native American war parties who gathered in the absence of any military check—the Continental Congress had disbanded the army! He worked to build a canal across the Potomac River but was frustrated by the competing and contradictory claims on river navigation by three states.
In the wake of the economic collapse of Rhode Island and the Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts, the nationalists’ call for a stronger central government—the Continental Congress was more a UN–like amalgam of thirteen sovereign republics than a governing entity—gained momentum. Washington had always been in their camp, having produced a widely distributed plan outlining needed changes to Congressional authority before resigning as commander. Indeed, more than an interested observer of events, which is how Washington is usually portrayed, Larson shows that he was deeply involved in building a coalition of leading men for a change in governance. Washington the private man continued a heavy load of correspondence with Congressmen, governors, and ambassadors. Far from the usual history of Washington being “recruited” by nationalists, we are treated to a view of Washington himself as the main figure of the Federalist camp.
He also was the very public face of the Federalists. While men such as James Madison and Henry Knox could provide logical arguments for scrapping the Articles Of Confederation and manufacturing a new republic, it was too bold an experiment for many. There was a strong mistrust of government authority, born from British abuses, that resonates in America to this day. Yet people could be won over, their fears assuaged, by the simple fact that Washington was involved in the new government. From a leading Charleston newspaper came the plea for ratification of the Constitution; “God grant that there may be wisdom and goodness enough still found among the majority to adopt, without hesitation, what a WASHINGTON … so warmly recommends.” Washington approves of this government, therefore it must be good.
Seeing Washington in this light, we understand now exactly why it was that the Framers seemed to construct the office of the presidency around him. He was not merely expected to fill it, it was a necessity that he be president. Several of the men who voted for the Constitution, and many people who ratified it in each state, did so only because they trusted Washington not to abuse the awesome powers they were providing him. He had refused to make himself dictator once before, and so they held faith that he could wield more power than any man before him had ever possessed in North America (with the exceptions of the Kings of France and Britain, both of whom had been kicked off the continent). If Washington had not become president the Constitution may not have been ratified. Americans from paupers to merchant princes believed in him that much.
Larson is adept at providing small details that are generally overlooked, which befits a book possessed of nearly a thousand footnotes. The famous scene at Fraunces Tavern, with Washington bidding farewell to his officers, was actually the second such planned event; the first farewell dinner was cancelled a few weeks earlier amid bitterness over Washington’s inability to get pay for his troops. Washington the neutral referee of the Constitutional Convention gives way to Larson’s portrayal of Washington as a political insider pushing for a strong national government; as he reminds us, it was after all The Virginia Resolves that formed the basis upon which the Constitution was erected, and Washington was the leading delegate of Virginia. Rather than a neutral presiding officer of the Convention, Washington was a voting member of his delegation and helped the Federalists shape and control the debates.
I personally enjoyed learning about the religious fervor possessed by some of the squatters on Washington’s frontier land, and appreciated the state-by-state look Larson provides on the political wrangling over the Constitution. Modern Americans may be struck by how dismissive Washington was towards the calls for a Bill Of Rights to be attached to the Constitution, but then we have the benefit of hindsight. We owe as much to the Anti-Federalists such as Patrick Henry as we do to the nationalists around Washington.
When some of those anti-Federalists swallowed their fears of governmental over-reach and, in modern parlance, “held their noses and voted” for the new Constitution, they did so because they personally believed in George Washington. They trusted him with their lives, their liberties, and their sacred honors. It was a trust Washington did not betray. He truly was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. Larson’s book does justice to the man who spent nearly all of his life in service to his nation, and provides us an illuminating look at the politics of his era.
Sean Stevenson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and bookseller. He has written several reviews of Revolutionary War–period wargames and books for ArmchairGeneral.com.