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The Return of George Washington by Edward Larson

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian's book is a well-researched albeit one-sided account that examines George Washington's many accomplishments but largely ignores the darker aspects of his character.

The subject of Edward Larson’s new book is the American general and first president George Washington, who consolidated his position as the most famous man in the world by accepting the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1783, effectively ending the American Revolution. But hovering around the pages of The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], is a ghost of a much older vintage: Cincinnatus, a nobleman of ancient Rome who was called from his farm by the senate, given absolute political and military power in order to defeat some unruly tribes, and then peacefully handed over that power when his job was done.

The Roman historian Livy celebrated the story of Cincinnatus as an example of proper civic humility, the orderly subjugation of force to the rule of law. And his celebration had an added edge, since he lived and worked in a Rome in which the memories of military dictators such as Marius, Sulla and Julius Caesar were still raw. Military dictators draw up execution lists; they ignore the laws; they beggar the state. For Livy, their only virtue was their occasional necessity: in some emergencies, one person in charge is the only way to get things done. But if they don’t then surrender the power they were given, they become worse than the problem they were created to fix.

George Washington very much had Cincinnatus in mind, when the American Revolution was over. He had frequently and publicly pined for his quiet life as a farmer back on his Virginia estate of Mount Vernon, and once hostilities with the British had stopped, he’d gone to Congress and promptly tendered his resignation as commander-in-chief of the American armed forces. “Having now finished the work assigned to me,” he said, “I retire from the great theatre of action.”

It was – and remains – a genuinely extraordinary gesture: had he wanted to, Washington could easily have used his virtually unlimited military power to make a grab for kingship. His army would very likely have supported the move, and a grateful American people might have agreed (this point is overestimated by Larson, as it has been by almost every Washington biographer in the last 200 years, but the possibility was nonetheless very real).

The Return of George Washington, as well-researched and well-told a work of popular history as anything published this year, begins by celebrating this decision of Washington’s to be a new Cincinnatus, to surrender his vast military power and retire to the life of a Virginia plantation owner. But the story doesn’t end there, naturally, nor do the echoes of Cincinnatus.

The newborn United States of America was a country mired in war debts and saddled with a makeshift national government – created by the Articles of Confederation – that could neither regulate its own institutions nor levy taxes to support itself. It relied, in large part, on voluntary financial contributions from the 13 former colonies, but in the years following Yorktown, those new states had plenty of problems – and plenty of debts – of their own. The national government, headquartered first in Philadelphia and then in New York, was breaking apart under the strain even while its diplomats were working out peace terms in Paris.

The greatest minds of that new republic – James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others – decided that two things were necessary to prevent the nation from descending into a chaos of warring states: first, the Articles of Confederation had to be scrapped in favour of a system that granted much more power to a central government, and second, the name of the only person who could possibly sell such a change to the American people, who were weary of war and suspicious of governing authority.

That name, of course, was George Washington, and so, in Larson’s telling, Cincinnatus was called from his plough and asked to helm the civilian government, to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, lend the proceedings the prestige of his reputation and – crucially – serve as the first president of the United States under the new constitution the Convention would create.

Larson makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Washington, and in this he has some distinguished company; Great Britain’s King George III called the American president the wonder of the age, and from exile on Elba, Napoleon Bonaparte bitterly lamented, “They wanted me to be another Washington” – the strong implication being that it’s unreasonable to expect any military dictator to surrender power voluntarily, even at the risk of defeat and exile.

And, as Larson points out, Washington was fighting for the legal supremacy of civilian authority even before that authority was handed over to him. One of the dramatic high points of The Return of George Washington happens very early in its pages: in 1783, a group of disgruntled Continental Army officers, angry over the unpaid back wages of themselves and their troops, was threatening to move – possibly even to march – against Congress. In his own telling of this so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, Larson is as sure of his villain (in his account, Hamilton goes from “almost certainly” knowing about the conspiracy on page 14 to being “knee-deep” in it on page 19 and is referred to as “a devious schemer ready to risk much to win all”) as he is of his hero, Washington, who appeared suddenly before his disgruntled officers and reduced them to tears when he took out a pair of spectacles in order to read his remarks, famously saying, “I have not only grown grey but almost blind in the service of my country.”

That service was supposed to be at an end in 1783, as Larson reminds us; Washington’s “plans for a comfortable retirement relied on income from his large land holdings at Washington’s Bottom, Miller’s Run, and the Great Kanawha” (the income from these “holdings” being generated by the work of hundreds of slaves), but Washington’s dismay over the unruly state of the new country’s porous western frontier was certainly a decisive factor in his urgent desire for a strong federalised government that could establish order, impose taxes, and, above all, facilitate commerce. Washington was fond of saying that he had “no wish which aspires beyond the humble and happy lot of living and dying as a private citizen on my own farm”, but, in reality, he was not only a ruthlessly efficient slave-plantation owner but also a sharp-eyed land speculator, perfectly ready to risk much to win all.

If Larson’s intensely good book has a persistent flaw, it’s his unwillingness to pin down this less-than-selfless side of his hero. His Washington is generally a Washington of whom Washington would have approved, with the man’s baser motivations kept discreetly in the background. This extends even to the choosing of the site for the seat of the national government; Washington and Madison worked hard to make sure the location of that new capital city was on the banks of the Potomac River, near Mount Vernon. As Larson somewhat innocently reports: “It lay at the midpoint of the country’s north-south axis and, if Washington’s company could open the upper Potomac for commercial navigation, at the terminus of the main route west.” It’s about as neutrally phrased as it could be.

Rather than being motivated by grubby financial concerns, Larson’s Washington is always the dispassionate and far-sighted statesman. He refuses to comment publicly during the new constitution’s lengthy ratification process, for instance, not because his personal vanity outweighed his respect for its republican virtues, but because “the Cincinnatus ideal demanded that he not seek power and taking sides now might limit his ability to serve as a unifying leader later”.

The Return of George Washington credits this unifying leader with initiatives that created “lasting national institutions”, the restoration of American credit, the opening of the West to settlement and commerce and the establishment of the American presidency as “a powerful office of overarching significance”. And although a less star-struck historian might spare a bit of credit in some of these accomplishments for men such as Jay, Madison and even the scheming Hamilton, there’s no denying Larson’s assertion of Washington’s central claims to fame: he didn’t take the presidency until he was unanimously asked, and he gave it up despite being unanimously asked not to. Say what you want about the man, but that was behaviour that hadn’t been seen in a very, very long time.

Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.


Updated: October 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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