The Return of George Washington 1783–1789
by edward j. larson
william morrow, 384 pages, $29.99
Edward J. Larson, a Pepperdine professor of law and history and a Pulitzer Prize winner, fills in six missing years of Washington’s life as a private citizen, from the formal close of the Revolutionary War in 1783 to his inauguration as president in 1789.
Washington had surrendered his military commission to the confederation Congress and “retired” from public life. He may really have longed for life as a Virginia planter, but he equally ached for an American government that could do things, like pay its own debts. He wanted a “national” government, one that was “energetic” at home and respected abroad. What the young nation instead had was an enfeebled unicameral Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and a grant of power that went only so far as the states might permit—and they permitted very little.
Washington’s role in what became the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was large, as Larson shows. His only hesitation in being one of Virginia’s delegates was that he did not want his name attached to the Convention if it failed. Advisors ultimately persuaded him that without his presence, the Convention certainly would fail. Thanks to Larson, we see a Washington who is far more calculating than generally suspected, and far better at it than one would guess. He had an obsession with appearances, and was very good at projecting the appearance he wanted.
When the Convention was debating the power and role of the presidency being proposed—and everyone understood if there was to be an office of the president, Washington would be the first to fill it—he went out of his way to tour a local gristmill and plant nursery during a recess. The sight of Washington poking here and there, asking questions only another farmer would understand, was a reassuring gesture for the other delegates, probably as he intended. He simply did not look, notes Larson, like “a would-be Caesar conspiring to create an imperial presidency for himself.”
After the Convention, Washington was active in the Constitution’s ratification. His private correspondence with fellow nationalists (who were coming to be called Federalists) was extensive, frequently directive, and clearly dismissive of the anti-Federalist opposition (Patrick Henry among them). He followed James Madison’s advice on whom to contact and when to do it, showing his hand openly only when it was likely to have the greatest impact. Larson’s book makes it clear that Washington’s active support for ratification was one of the decisive factors in its eventual adoption.
Washington largely succeeded in acting as an impartial, above-the-fray statesman, awaiting the call of his country. What Larson reveals, though, is a Washington who never was quite that. He was a partisan politician, and a very good one. Still, it is something of a surprise to find that when he decried the effects of “party faction,” Washington hardly had his own party in mind.
Russell E. Saltzman’s latest book is Speaking of the Dead.
This article first appeared in the April 2015 print issue.