The Lawgiver

George Washington provided explicit direction for biographers and analysts seeking to capture the substance of his public service. In his September 1796 “Farewell Address,” he wrote:

Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my Country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that after forty five years of my life dedicated to its Service, with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the Mansions of rest.

As we can see, Washington identified as the term of his service to the United States, a continuous period dating from 1751 to 1796. Every Washington biographer inherits an obligation to tell the story at least with reference to that “body of work,” if not comprehensively reproducing it. To date, no one has presented that coherent account (including the present author). But Edward J. Larson has taken large strides toward compensating for the lack with The Return of George Washington. The book focuses on what is arguably the most under-appreciated period in that 45 years, the time between Washington’s resignation of his command of the Army of the Revolution and his inauguration as the first President of the United States.

When asked if he would prepare memoirs for posterity, Washington replied that he would leave that task to “some Homer.” None has appeared yet. Larson’s gap-filling does not quite do the trick, for it rings out of tune with the balance of Washington’s 45 years. The reason, perhaps, is that he did not take into account the direction Washington provided in his “Farewell Address.” That is, while he correctly sees the initial “retirement years” as a continuous tapestry with the prior and subsequent years of public service, he nevertheless relates them as a period of private endeavors punctuated by public concerns.

For Washington those years remained a period of public endeavors punctuated by private concerns, all pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding.

It is no surprise that Washington was not a passive spectator of the effects of his “political legacy.” That is the phrase he used in referring to his “Circular Address to the Governors of the Thirteen States” from June of 1783. That explicit platform for greater nationalism was a call to arms in a struggle no less urgent than all the battles fought during the Revolutionary War. Washington’s vigorous correspondence with co-adjutors in the movement to enhance the federal authority, coupled with economic initiatives that he hoped would cement diverse parts of the nation into a greater cohesion, constituted a systematic campaign to reshape the national character.

Larson tells this story well, and particularly well in relation to the campaign to build a system of canals for the Ohio and Potomac Rivers. Similarly, he recounts the extensive correspondence with Henry Knox, John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others that set forth the basic architecture of the future national constitution. In all of this, Washington, in the guise of inquiry, was actually molding and shaping expectations toward a decisive founding moment. Thus, without ever claiming the reputation of author, Washington stood in the most strategic location to assure that a new regime would be created.

Fittingly, Larson devotes the bulk of his book to the period between the Mount Vernon Compact (March 1785) and the ratification of the Constitution (June 1788). The compact elicited from Washington a comment in a letter to Madison, to the effect that “We are either a United people, or we are not; if the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation.” This was the civil echo to the military inspiration that Washington provided on July 4, 1775, when he declared to his soldiers that:

They are now the Troops of the United Provinces of North America; and it is hoped that all Distinctions of Colonies will be laid aside; so that one and the same spirit may animate the whole, and the only Contest be, who shall render, on this great and trying occasion, the most essential service to the Great and common cause.

Washington, in other words, had set a course from which he did not waver and that did not depend upon the evidence of poor performance by the Confederation Congress to clarify in his mind the animating principle of his statesmanship.

Washington did not single-handedly bring about the founding of the United States, and Larson does not fail to distribute ample credit to the many participants in the process. But it is an inescapable consequence of Larson’s account that Washington is identified as the central one of the dramatis personae. The point was not so much that Washington was “indispensable” (which watchword Larson repeats), but that he alone acted with singular determination over a long course of time to bring about the specific result.

This dynamic escaped John P. Roche in his otherwise able account of the period, when he identified the Founding Fathers (in a 1961 article in the American Political Science Review) as a “reform caucus in action.” But, just as Roche was innocent of Washington’s centrality, so, too, was Larson innocent of Roche’s analytical attention to this critical period, which eventuated in the observation,

the Philadelphia Convention was . . . a nationalist reform caucus which had to operate with great delicacy and skill in a political cosmos full of enemies to achieve the one definitive goal—popular approbation.

The consequence of Larson’s innocence is that he does not bring an analytical framework to his task, which leaves his beautiful synthesis lacking in explanatory power. That is, he identifies the personalities behind the nationalist impulse that resulted in the Constitution, but he does not identify the intellectual and organizational muscle behind it. That is the reason it is so important to present an integrated account of George Washington spanning what he counted as his career of contribution.

George Washington was a lawgiver—not merely a charismatic emblem of nationality. His stature resulted less from his physique than from his moral character. Larson effectively demonstrates the operation of that moral and political leadership within the context of the Constitutional Convention.

An example of this is the role Washington played in flipping the Virginia delegation on the “money bill” provision. Larson quotes Madison’s record of Washington giving up “his judgment, he said, because it was not very material weight with him & was made an essential point with others.” Indeed, the record demonstrates not only Washington carrying Virginia but setting the tone for Pennsylvania on this question. And the case can be made more strongly than as surrender on an insubstantial point. In fact it was an inflection point in the deliberations and, judging it as such, Washington acted in order to give direction to the proceedings.

This is a view in miniature of Washington’s outsized influence during the Convention and during the entire process, as is also his final-day exhortation to amend the ratio of representation in the Constitution, which attracted unanimous support without debate. These pivots by Washington reflect substantial direction and not merely pragmatic adaptations. What Larson has provided is further opportunity to appreciate how far Washington substantially directed the Founding.

Unfortunately, he has marred a finely executed work with occasional unaccountable lapses, which reflect a less than complete familiarity with the literature on this topic. To cite just one of these, which stands out because Larson himself provides the evidence wherewith to correct his error of interpretation, we may consider briefly his repetition of the familiar and false bromide that opponents of the Constitution “ironically became known as antifederalists.” For many years this was a standard but erroneous teaching. However, it has been shown to be in error for more than three decades and there is no longer any excuse for the error to be repeated.

The Antifederalists came to be known as such before even a draft constitution existed, let alone the formal proposition developed by the Constitutional Convention. They acquired the name for the sufficient reason that it accurately described their state-centric political posture. Hence, it was not an ironic denomination. From a point early in the existence of the Confederation, there was a manifest centrifugal tendency which served as a point of reference to distinguish the “federal-minded” from the “state-minded.” They might well have been called “pro-state” rather than antifederal, but the valence would have been the same in either case.

Not only is this well-documented in the scholarship, but The Return of George Washington even includes the evidence of this fact within its own pages! Larson cites the New Hampshire Gazette of May 19, 1787, which was prior to the formal opening of the Convention, in the following terms:

Their names [Franklin and Washington] affixed . . . will stamp a confidence in them [the projected measures of the Convention], which the narrow-soul’d antifederalist politicians in the several States, who by their influence, have hitherto d[amn]d us as a nation, will not dare attack.[1]

That the term “antifederalist” was current before the ratification debate opened suffices to establish that the nomenclature did not arise by sleight-of-hand, or as a mere imposition on the part of the nationalists seeking to stigmatize the opponents of the Constitution.

I do not dwell on this point in order to detract from the overall value of the book, which I broadly praise. I do so only as an admonition that one needs to read it with an awareness of its author’s less than complete mastery of the history of the period under review.

[1] From p. 105, mistakenly cited as May 19, 1897 in the footnote.