Review of “George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father” by David O. Stewart

An experienced biographer, historian David O. Stewart focuses on how George Washington became a “master politician,” and how this skill helped him navigate the very treacherous shoals of the early years of the American Republic. The increasingly poisonous atmosphere, especially during Washington’s second term in office, won’t sound so foreign to the current audience.

Stewart devotes most of his attention to Washington’s early years, and especially to those events that defined his later character. He recounts Washington’s experiences in the French and Indian War; his terms of office in the Virginia House of Burgesses; service as a judge on Fairfax County Court; and commander of armed forces in the American War of Independence. Stewart documents how, over time, Washington gained control over his apparently fierce temper, and learned the importance of building political coalitions and avoiding controversies whenever he could.

Washington, Stewart reports, never minced words about what he wanted: his goal was renown. Moreover, he craved “the regard and esteem” of fellow countrymen. He had a lifelong dread of any smudge on his reputation, and therefore of failure in any of his endeavors. As he wrote to a relative in 1775, “reputation derives it principal support from success.”

Because he needed success to make a good impression, some controversies were more difficult to avoid than others, especially as they directly would determine the outcome of his biggest challenges. One was the matter of getting colonists to cough up money. The Revolution was tied to Americans’ hatred of taxes, a dislike that has never in fact been dented much. And yet, at the same time, Americans wanted much that depended on government funding, such as an army that could repel the British; protection by an army from Natives increasingly unhappy over the usurpation of their land; and roads and other infrastructure that crossed state boundaries. Washington, who spent so many years leading soldiers who had little food, clothes, equipment, and wages, knew firsthand that a resistance to taxation and demand for services were incompatible desires.

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

Washington’s awareness of the country’s need for money carried over into his presidency, during which he aligned with Alexander Hamilton on fiscal policies that would retire the war debts and get a standardized currency approved. These unpopular measures needed to have the force of law behind them. As Washington observed back in 1778, “Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good.” He went on to aver that no institution relying on that faulty premise would succeed.

Washington had several factors that worked in his favor in the early republic. One was that Americans then, like now, “craved a hero.” It was generally easier to find someone to fill that need who played a military role, in spite of the fact that Washington’s military victories were few and far between. Much of his success in the Revolution could be attributed just to outlasting the British, who were fighting far from home. But as Stewart points out, it was political savvy, rather than military prowess, that was central to Washington’s success. In the internecine battles for control over the army and influence in Congress, Washington was often just the last man left standing.

Washington always wanted to make sure that everyone knew he didn’t want all these responsibilities (a claim belied by his pursuit of them). Thus if he failed, it wasn’t really his fault because he kept trying to turn down all these positions to which he was unanimously elected.

Once he did accept a position, however, he exerted tight control over that institution. Today he would be called a “micro-manager.” He was deeply involved in every aspect of his army and with all the deal-making under his presidential administration, in spite of his seeming reticence publicly. In fact, one interesting passage in this book deals with the famous compromise over war debt assumption by the new country and the location of its capital. Most histories claim that Jefferson somehow engineered the deal at a dinner party; Stewart contends this was largely a re-writing by Jefferson of what happened. It was a long-term process, Stewart avers, and Washington manipulated all of it.

By Washington’s second term, however, Washington was no longer seen as someone who could do no wrong. The country had grown, and dissent had grown along with it. Opponents launched bitter and often untrue attacks on him. Stewart explores the factors that led to this increase in factionalism, including French interference in American politics; the growing rivalry of Jefferson, who co-opted Madison, a former ally of Washington’s, to his cause; and of course, taxes. Washington couldn’t wait to escape the growing acrimony of political life. On the day John Adams was inaugurated as the second president, Adams later wrote that Washington looked “as serene and unclouded as the day.” He added, “Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest!’”

President John Adams

Washington died in 1799 after a difficult illness that started out as a cold. In his will he freed what slaves he could (some were owned by Martha’s estate and not his to free), and provided for care of others. He never made a public condemnation of slavery, however. Stewart speculates that Washington knew how controversial slavery was and didn’t want to damage his standing any further. Stewart also thought Washington must have known he would have sounded hypocritical if he spoke out against slavery. [That consideration never stopped other Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson.] Moreover, Washington never seemed to have awareness of how awful the state of being “owned” must be to another person. When he was younger, for example, traveling to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence in 1751, he gushed in his diary about being “ravished” by the beauty of Barbados, the gorgeous mansions, and the great meals, but evinced no awareness of the harsh lives of the slaves there who made all that possible, especially the short-lived workers in the sugar-cane fields. And much later in life, when Martha’s favorite slave Ona Judge ran away, Washington fumed in a letter:

“. . . however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”

The Washingtons were incensed and offered a reward for Ona’s recapture.

In Washington’s view, Ona, who was money walking out his door, was “ungrateful.” What about a desire for freedom? It seems that for Washington, that wasn’t a relevant or legitimate desire for African Americans.

His blindness about “life, liberty, and happiness” for all extended to Native Americans. When fighting against them on America’s then western border, he reported how upset he was over “barbarous” Indians killing settlers – “poor innocent babes and helpless families.” He never considered why they might have acted that way, insofar as they were being evicted from their homelands, and subject to barbarous murders themselves by settlers covetous of Native property.

Stewart doesn’t make these flaws in Washington’s perception and character central, however, choosing to focus instead on Washington’s self-reinvention and political genius, and how he accomplished the former and developed the latter. In that respect, he does a fine job.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton Books, 2021

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