Book Review: Washington’s Circle
by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Random House, 2015
Historians David and Jeanne Heidler’s new book Washington’s Circle, about the central power brokers of George Washington’s presidential administration, will inevitably elicit comparisons with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, about President Lincoln’s cabinet. Such comparisons will be apt enough, but they’ll fall short on two vital headings. First, Goodwin’s book featured figures like William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates – compromised politicians in smudgy frock coats, trimming, polls-watching time-servers who would, with minor cosmetic changes, fit with depressing ease into any White House in the last hundred years. In the whole breadth of the book, there’s only one Lincoln, as it were. In Washington’s Circle, the President, himself a towering figure who was fresh from leading the newborn colonies’ skeletal military forces into an alliance with the French that won independence for a new nation, was surrounded by, to put it mildly, more substantial figures: John Adams as vice president, Alexander Hamilton at the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, James Madison as special aide – and the list goes on, the last great flash of the Enlightenment’s blazing birth, an assemblage such as few nations in history could boast at any one time, much less at birth (“We must perforce blush for our blessings,” wise and vinegary Massachusetts lawman Elbridge Gerry remarked, “and blush the more so if, enjoying such blessings, we fail”). Formidable as they were, Lincoln’s team of rivals looks decidedly puerile alongside such an assemblage as this.
The second heading is no less dramatic: Team of Rivals was filled with its author’s clear, careful prose … whereas Washington’s Circle positively glows with narrative exuberance. This is a book that will make even the most jaded student of the American Revolution bark little laughs of pure delight while reading. Everything here is burnished until is shines with new luster; even Washington himself, the most over-analyzed historical figure this side of a certain pestiferous little Corsican, is imbued with a contradictory complexity no writer has given him since Richard Norton Smith’s Patriarch a quarter-century ago. Our authors even manage to find a hidden depth in Washington’s phlegmatic sobriety, and the depth is death: “Washington’s fatalism over death was unusual even for a time when it was easy to die. Beginning with a baby sister, then his father, his many brothers, and the stepchildren, he had been losing loved once since he was ten years old,” they write. “But his acceptance of death was only part of what those endless seasons of constant loss had done to him. He expected death and was seldom shocked when it came. He kept his sadness to himself and could seem cold.”
And the same narrative magic extends amply to the titular circle, each member of which is brought spectacularly to life by the Heidlers’ unerring ability find great phrases. These are terrifyingly complex people whose characters have often baffled even the most dedicated biographers, but in Washington’s Circle they are first and foremost human beings, and that key unlocks the rest. When Washington wants to recall Jefferson from Europe to join the administration in 1789, for instance, the Virginian’s friends are overjoyed – including the least likely of those friends:
Abigail Adams thrilled at the prospect of Tom Jefferson coming into the government. Her husband John did, too. While they were abroad Jefferson, John, and Abigail had helped with each other’s children, and when Jefferson came to England he and John walked together on tours of English gardens (neither cared for them), a tall shambling redhead nodding and smiling t the peppery bursts that Adams fired off about everything he knew and some things he did not. Jefferson liked this round little companion. Adams liked him right back. Adams never liked anybody right back.
Jefferson himself gets a single-paragraph summation that very nearly betters the entirety of the last four full-length biographies of the man:
Nothing escaped Jefferson’s scrutiny: astronomy, physics, medicine, politics, mathematics, whale oil, moose droppings, tobacco leafs, ornithology, the timbre of certain bird trills, the lilt of certain Indian dialects, the day that spring’s aroma signaled the time to plant peas, the exact breadth and width of the beam to bear the load of the heaviest roof, the rise of man, the fall of kings, the glory of the Enlightenment, the passion of revolution, the tranquility of a hearth with laughing children and a dozen books to be read, all at once, annotated, outlined, digested, owned in the mind as well as on the shelf, always going, a brilliant machine oiled to a quiet thrum that occasionally popped like a sparkling firecracker – there was nobody in the world like Thomas Jefferson.
Even the traditional dark horse of the gathering, Hamilton, gets a fair-enough treatment, although of all their central cast, he’s clearly the one our authors find the most off-putting. He “never thought of American citizens as intuitively astute about money, liberty, or order. As far as he could see, they spent too much, confused freedom with license, and tended to fly into rages over trivial irritations,” they write. “People like that had to be herded. They had to be controlled.” A bit too easy, but their descriptions of Hamilton’s nine hundred governmental innovations are scrupulously fair – no mean accomplishment, considering the fact that many of those innovations are still beyond the grasp of great swaths of the population they were intended to help.
Our authors follow the Washington administration through all its well-known trials and choose to conclude their account with the great man’s death at Mount Vernon in 1799, but in all they’ve wrought more thoroughly than that: their subtitle notwithstanding, this is the story not just of the creation of a president but of a government and even a way of governing. It’s a stunning achievement to make serious history read as thrillingly as this.