The Return of George Washington: 1783 – 1789
By Edward Larson
William Morrow, 2014
Is there really more to write about George Washington? Almost as soon as he was in the grave, biographies began appearing, often multi-volume such as John Marshall’s six-volume Life of Washington. Two centuries later, that tide continues to come in. But what more can be known? Too often, new biographies repackage old analysis for a new generation. Worse, as with the other Framers some new biographies are less interested in discussing their subjects than in molding their lives into cudgels for modern political battles (think Glenn Beck’s frequent appeals to Jefferson or the Nation arguing what James Madison would have thought about the NSA). Fortunately, with The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 Edward Larson, a history professor at Pepperdine University, reminds readers not only that when it comes to the Framers there is still much to consider. Larson from the first acknowledges that plenty of others have written about Washington and written well. Larson, however, focuses on the years between Washington’s surrender of his commission and his assuming the presidency, a period in which Washington played a role insufficiently examined and yet central to the establishment of the US. In particular, Larson cogently evidences that Washington’s was crucial to both the success of the Convention in Philadelphia and the Constitution’s eventual ratification. At the same time, he dives into the long simmering question of whether Washington was as loath to abandon retirement as he claimed. . Moreover, like the best political histories, Larson’s book speaks to our present but in a subtle voice, his arguments at once evident yet never explicit.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that biographers often neglect Washington’s years of retirement: it is easy to cheer for an American Cincinnatus as he surrenders authority (King George III remarked incredulously to painter Benjamin West about Washington’s return to private life that “If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world”). What if anything can really be learned from the interregnum? Even in Washington’s most well-known public function in those years – presiding over the Constitutional Convention – he is usually eclipsed by the more intellectual Framers such as Madison and Hamilton. While Washington was not a major contributor to the Convention’s discussions, choosing to maintain his taciturn public demeanor, Larson sees this oversight as near unforgivable. Washington, as he sees those crucial years, was indispensable. Absent Washington’s participation the Convention likely never would have occurred. And just as his tactical skills were essential to victory in the American Revolution, so too was Washington prestige decisive in the the Constitution’s eventual ratification. In short, had Washington died on his way back to Mount Vernon in 1783, thrown from his horse or choked on his meal, the United States might never have emerged.
Many readers will know at least something about the structural failings of the Articles of Confederation, which left the newly independent colonies with a national government hardly worthy of the name (“national government” actually a misnomer since the Articles referred to the collective states not as a nation, but a “league of friendship”). Fewer readers will know of the failings of individual state constitutions, the reform of which, in Larson’s view, were just as crucial to the Framers. Some states, particularly Pennsylvania, established governing structures that might be charitably described as unstable. Ironically, the agreement produced at the Philadelphia Convention can be seen in no small part as a reaction against this volatile experiment in democracy. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was radical by later republican standards. It created a unicameral legislature whose members were limited to a single two year term, vested executive power in a twelve member Council, and judges who served at the pleasure of the legislature. The system resulted in chaos as control shifted between two rabidly partisan factions. With each election, the ascendant faction would fire all the judges. Taxes would be imposed, two years later repealed at the next election, and then be imposed again. To the Framers, it looked on the edge of anarchy.
Larson’s discussion of these worrying trends does an excellent job linking them to the building pressure to revise the national government. From Mount Vernon, Washington watched the Articles of Confederation fail to meet even the minimum standards he thought required for stable government. Like his neighbors, he read in the newspapers of the newly independent states bickering over issues of territory and trade. New York, the states’ leading port, fixed tariffs on the imports and exports of other states. States printed their own money, spawning rampant inflation. More than just watching these events, Washington corresponded with his former comrades voicing his concern that the new nation was on the road to ruin.
Washington’s view were not all second hand. One of America’s largest property owners, Washington possessed title to vast tracts on the “frontier” of western Virginia and Pennsylvania. A tour of those holdings in 1784 deepened his doubts about the new nation’s prospects. “Imagine,” writes Larson, “the surprise of isolated settlers when the legendary general appeared unannounced at their doors in the backwoods.” More surprising was that the general could get there at all: roads on the frontier were at best rudimentary. As for his property, in one place he faced squatting members of a religious sect. In another, a tenant with neither the means nor inclination to pay his rent (and the total absence of any legal authority to which he might appeal to enforce the lease). Native Americans fought settlers. If this was the State of Nature, it was a Hobbesian state to be sure. Evidence of government authority were nowhere to be found. As Larson explains:
A lack of national power lay at the heart of the matter. Scarcely a year had passed since Britain signed a treaty recognizing American sovereignty over the entire region east of the Mississippi River, south of the Great Lake and North of Florida. The British continued to occupy forts in the remote corner of this region northwest of the Ohio River, however, where they traded with the native peoples for furs…With virtually no funds or forces the United States government was powerless to secure the frontier. Moreover, Virginia ceded its claim over the old Northwest to Congress in 1784, making its defense entirely a national problem.
If Congress did not serve the needs of these settlers, another power – Spain or France – would surely fill the void. Larson cites Washington’s letters to Richard Henry Lee, “The ties of consanguinity which are weakening every day will soon become no bond.” Should the settlers find avenues of trade through some other power, Washington wrote to another correspondent, “they [the settlers] would in a few years be as unconnected to us, indeed more so, than we are with South America…” Washington even goes so far as to worry that these frontier communities will in short order begin to look on the states much as the colonies had looked on Great Britain, as a distant occupying force and “would soon be alienated from us.” Comfortable retirement depended on the economic viability of Washington’s frontier holdings. Further, as a patriot, he saw the national experiment as wholly dependent on the country’s ability to control and develop those western territories.
Larson points to this alignment of Washington’s public and private interest as central to his decision to join the movement to reform the national government. Previous attempts had failed. How could another attempt succeed? The nationalists – John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Henry Knox, among others – understood that they needed the anchor of Washington’s gravitas. Though he fully supported the Nationalists’ efforts in private, Washington was slow in his willingness to do so publicly. Hamlet-like in Larson’s characterization, Washington went back and forth on whether or not he would attend the Philadelphia Convention. Some biographers see this as Washington being intentionally coy, trying to maintain his Cincinnatus aura. Larson, however, aligns with those who see his sentiment as heart-felt: Washington enjoyed private life and was loath to return to service.
So why did he finally agree? Washington saw the stakes as cataclysmic. Absent success, the nation would fail. All his sacrifices for Revolutionary victory would have been in vain. As Larson describes Washington and Jay’s exchange:
…[their letters] betrayed far more fundamental concerns than mere fears of losing the West, simple hopes for a national market economy, and plain desires to repay government creditors, though those issues certainly weighed heavily on both men. Their letters spoke in terms of calamity and commotion, loss of public virtue and disposition to do justice, and breakdown of the social fabric under the excesses of majority faction. Liberty itself was at risk…much as it had been in 1776 – but this time the threat came from within, which made it worse…. “We are going and doing wrong, and therefore I look to Evils and Calamities,” Jay wrote.
With such stakes, it is no surprise that Washington returned to public life as a delegate from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention.
The specifics of the Convention has been handled elsewhere in exhaustive detail and Larson does not focus on this well tilled soil. Instead, he looks at the failure of previous efforts at reform and why Washington’s participation made the difference in Philadelphia’s success. Only five states sent delegations to the last effort, dubbed the “Annapolis Convention.” Yet with Washington’s prestige behind
this enterprise, states not only participated but stacked their delegations with influential figures. Nationalist newspapers and even those less strongly aligned trumpeted Washington’s participation. America’s Cincinnatus was taking the field again to save the new nation.
Washington’s importance was noticed by those who came to be dubbed “anti-Federalists.” Patrick Henry, for example, saw a powerful central government as a threat to liberty and recognized that Washington’s participation might make a decisive difference. In protest, Henry made the historic blunder of refusing his appointment as a delegate. Had he instead traveled to Philadelphia, refused to take the oath of secrecy sworn by the other delegates, and organized from the first against the new Constitution, Henry might very well have been able to undermine any hope of ratification by crucial Virginia. The States would have remained united in no real sense, leaving the United States stillborn. Henry, however, made his choice and proved unable to block the new Constitution after it emerged.
Larson offers some interesting thoughts on the crucial compromises required to achieve agreement. The author possess a fascinating if subtle argument here about those Americans who view the Constitution as holy writ. While the Framers were brilliant and their achievements undeniable,we do them a disservice if we imagine the Constitution as perfect. The Constitution was not drafted primarily a legal document; the Framers were politicians and their product was – and is – a political document. As with any political effort, success was possible only through hard-fought compromises. Larson cites the correspondence of several delegates after the convention still worrying that this or that compromise went too far. They worried, however, not strictly based on their parochial interests, though these of course played a part, but also because of the risk that the whole system might collapse. Perhaps some see Washington as simply projecting the interests of his class onto the nation as a whole, but one cannot deny that his interests, when compromised with those of more urban and manufacturing minded delegates such as Hamilton, served to set the nation on a course that allowed it to do what many of his generation thought impossible: survive and prosper for more than two centuries.
And brilliant as the delegates were, they made serious unforced errors. Larson points to two examples: the first, much considered elsewhere, was the utter political-tone-deafness required for them to choose to omit an enumerated bill of rights. This proved a near-fatal stumbling block when they submitted the Constitution to the States for ratification. Less discussed was the byzantine presidential election system. As Larson argues, this system was ideal to ensure Washington’s election as the first president. Later, however, it lurched the young republic into its earliest political crisis. As early as the first election absent Washington, the weakness of the Framers system became plain. Adams, as the Federalist candidate, received the largest number of electoral votes and became the 2nd president. However, the runner-up who became Vice President was Thomas Jefferson. The two men hated each other (Jefferson no less than Hamilton seemed to define himself based on his collection of political nemesis). Jefferson from the first did everything in his power to undermine the administration in which he was supposed to serve. If anything the Framers’ system led to still worse results in the election of 1800. Under the original system, each elector cast two votes with winner becoming President. Unfortunately, 1800 ended in an electoral tie. The election was thrown to the House where the president was only selected after 35 wrenching ballots. No surprise that its replacement was the topic of the Constitutions first structural amendment.
Of course that failed system did succeed in electing Washington. Washington’s agreement to take up that office was in fact a crucial factor in ratification. “Washington’s signature on the transmittal letter and accompanying resolutions,” writes Mr. Larson, “ensured they would command attention. Indeed, they made it look as if the Constitution came from him.” An independent executive, which many perceived as a threat to liberty, was among the Framer’s most controversial innovations. Popular perception that Washington would be the first to occupy that office endowed it with an aura of honor and helped blunt these misgivings. Indeed, anti-Federalists who saw the presidency as a possible precursor to monarchy were often unfairly accused of “attacking the general.” Patrick Henry lamented that, while none could worry about Washington’s republican virtue, the office’s next occupant might prove of a less noble spirit. Worries about a distant future, however, proved a weak rallying cry. Washington’s popularity won the day.
While excellent, Larson makes a few irksome choices. Just as he has favorite Framers, so to he has one about whom he also dislikes. These Framers, Hamilton and Adam’s chief among them, he often caricatures to an unfortunate degree. Yes, Hamilton was by any standard deeply flawed. Too often he saw political issues in near-apocalyptic terms. He never met a political disagreement that he could not push into a fierce and abiding hatred. The political schemes he hatched tended towards the dazzlingly intricate, often collapsing under their own weight. Such failings however in no way diminish from his many contributions – organizing the Treasury Department, creating the tariff system that funded the Federal government, ordering the fiscal house of the indebted nation to make it credit worthy, and establishing a sound currency to name just a few — that cemented America’s economic and political success. Similarly, John Adams suffered from an unfortunate combination of vainglory and concern that he was never earning the respect he deserved. Like Hamilton, however, the nation might well have failed absent his willingness to refuse the powerful voices who called for the young nation to declare war on France (Hamilton) or Britain (Jefferson). Larson also crams Washington’s entire presidency into the book’s scant final pages. This choice distracts from his topic while adding little to his central arguments. Such shortcomings, however, cannot much detract from an otherwise insightful and informative work.
As with many Framers, no writer will ever be able to claim the last word on Washington. Readers never tire of exploring the lives and decisions of these men. Some read out of curiosity. Others read out of a sense of longing for an imagined mythic generation of perfect patriots. Looking backwards, Americans often think of the Constitution as inevitable. Larson punctures such dreamy notions. He reminds us that the Framers were, first and foremost politicians: men often driven by interests, background, and even petty gripes. To those who imagine that impersonal dynamics — not individuals — drive history, he offers the counter example of an indispensable man at a most pivotal time. Despite his flaws, Washington was that rarest of historical characters: he left the public stage when many assumed he would be crowned king. He returned when his nation needed him, despite his preference for retirement. Thus he remains ever, as Lee eulogized him, “first in war – first in peace – and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Jordan Magill is a freelance writer. His other reviews for Open Letters Monthly can be found here.