Alec D. Rogers reviews Edward Larson’s The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789, a portrait of our first president from the end of the Revolutionary War until he took office. Unlike many accounts that portray “a Washington who emerges from Mount Vernon only with the greatest reluctance to play out a script written by James Madison,” Larson gives us “a much more active and politically engaged Washington, who did as much as anyone during these years to bring the new republic into being”:
[Larson] shows us how Washington’s political savvy helped ensure that the Constitution would gain acceptance. The result was a product that closely resembled what, for years, Washington had been advocating in private.
At the crux of the story, though, is Larson’s explanation for why Washington ultimately abandoned a retirement from political life that he earnestly desired.
Larson makes the case that the political class of the time was sold on the need for reform of the Articles of Confederation, and that all agreed Washington’s active support was essential. But the key connective element is Washington’s own political thought and understanding of republican duty. As Glenn Phelps has noted in his study of Washington’s constitutional thought, Washington’s concept of republicanism was that of Greece and Rome: “Republican hagiography demanded that its heroes always be willing to defend the republic against corruption and decay. As much to confirm his own virtue as to attain specific reforms, Washington determined to end his public ‘retirement.’”
In an earlier review of the book, Steve Donaghue expressed regret regarding Larson’s “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”.
(Image: General George Washington Resigning His Commission by John Trumbull, via Wikimedia Commons)