According to Stewart, a former trial lawyer and a historical novelist, the Constitutional Convention transformed the Virginian into a “working politician” whose essentially conservative values led him to desire, as president, a “ ‘respectable’ government that could tax and govern” without roiling disgruntled citizens. Long cast as “virtue personified,” Stewart’s Washington is the “sober” counterpoint to the “firebrand” Alexander Hamilton. Unlike most founder books, “George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father” contends that the first president was in complete control of the executive, minding every detail. He was, at various moments, the “great unifier,” the “cheerleader president” and a “consummate performer,” doing his all to hold a fracturing nation together.
As a young man with an ambition to achieve public renown, Washington’s height and athleticism marked him. Growing up fast, guided by his older half brother Lawrence, he became enmeshed in the Ohio Company’s aggressive pursuit of frontier land, which played a role in his choice of soldiering as a means of advancement. Surviving smallpox, he became a death-defying leader of ungovernable Virginia troops during the French and Indian War, annoyed in being denied a British army commission. “His inability to pacify the frontier tortured him,” Stewart writes. “Having known mostly failure in uniform, he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Yet as the author goes on to show, in tracing Washington’s demanding life in the 1750s, he was often “petulant” in communications with his patron, Gov. Robert Dinwiddie; more tact would have yielded him more goodwill. In a masterfully drawn chapter, “Biting the Hand,” Stewart details the drama (and theatrics) of that critical relationship.
His extensive coverage of Washington’s early professional experience is fitting, given the many documented lessons amassed from colonial-era relationships. Above all, Washington gained in knowledge of military discipline, “logistics, paperwork, and organization,” which he’d employ in the Revolutionary War, keeping “his reputation intact” despite battlefield reverses, while many other senior officers ended their careers ignominiously. Yet Washington’s difficult temper never quite receded.
The chapter “Man of Business, Master of Slaves” instructively analyzes the planter’s eager pursuit of advanced farming methods. He was a hands-on manager of his Northern Virginia lands: “Washington measured work obsessively, searching for better ways to organize it.” A “devotion to time-and-motion studies” grew his farm output exponentially and helped his revenue stream.
Following recent scholarship, the author underscores Washington’s complete acceptance of the institution of slavery. He resorted to euphemistic language in which beatings were referred to as “correction.” There is no sugarcoating the fact that he regarded human property as “assets.” He told an overseer to exercise requisite civility but to avoid such informality as narrowed social distance between free and enslaved; for “they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you will sink in authority.” Whether as military commander or plantation master, Washington employed corporal punishment. The author straddles a line, uneasily granting a reprieve to one who made emancipation plans part of his final will. As Stewart writes, “Late in life, but with his characteristic tenacity, he would try to set an example.” As president for eight years, Washington did nothing publicly to draw attention to the immorality of slavery.
Stewart’s recapitulation of the War for Independence and debates over the Constitution is unremarkable, and some of his speculations should raise eyebrows. When Washington is bypassed in committee assignments at the Continental Congress, we are meant to accept that the decision to favor brainier men “might seem like a snub, but it played to Washington’s strengths.” In what way? Attendance at private dinners where he could strut his “dignified yet relaxed manner.” Similarly stretching the rules of history writing, Stewart has his hero gauging how the other colonies’ best and brightest looked upon him: “He might have imagined himself as a leader among them. . . . He could see that he was taken seriously.” More hyperbole, over two paragraphs: “Washington’s public career would become an excruciating balancing act. . . . Revolutions are combustible things. . . . He had captured the holy grail for public actors. . . . It was magic.”
We ought to address the overabundance of history and biography on the principal founders, and above all Washington. With popularly drawn narratives receiving more public airtime than the nuanced efforts of professional historians who increasingly aim to merge discerning analysis with lively narrative, Stewart’s latest work lies in between. Is this book a corrective, remedying other scholars’ mistakes? No. Was this book necessary? No. Yet it is well-informed, intricate and straightforwardly told. While he gets carried away in places, Stewart uses an impressive range of sources, showing breadth and scholarly heft.
Washington did not expect to enjoy a ripe old age, being, he said, of “a short-lived family.” Dead at 67, before the 19th century arrived, he has continued, with posthumous authority, to commission skilled writers to renew his life and propel him forward, century by century. “The glorification of Washington happened at high speed, long before he took the field against the British,” Stewart breezily notes at one point in his spirited chronicle. Yet he himself writes implausibly of Washington’s singularity at the time of his presidential inauguration: He “embodied the transition from monarchical and aristocratic society to self-government. As a republican leader more regal than most kings, he was uniquely suited to mediate that transition.”
There was, in fact, no such transition. The balancing act Stewart claims Washington performed was actually an awkward blend of the monarchical and aristocratic — Washingtonian elitism — with a democratic impulse he determinedly resisted. Glorification did occur at high speed, but it must be said that any dethronement of the quasi-royal model of patriarchal excellence was occurring in extremely slow motion.
The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father
By David O. Stewart
552 pp. $32