Review: The Return of George Washington

the return of george washington

The Return of George WashingtonEdward J. Larson. New York: Morrow, 2014.

Summary: An account of the life of George Washington, between his retirement as General of the Continental Army in 1783 until his inauguration as the first president under the new U.S. Constitution.

In December of 1783, having successfully led the Continental Army to victory over and the departure of the British from New York City, George Washington stepped down as Commander in Chief to return to his plantation at Mount Vernon. On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States, under a new constitution that created a much stronger federal government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation.

In this book, Edward J. Larson explores a period in Washington’s life often lightly covered by other biographies, the five plus years of Washington’s “retirement” from public life. Ostensibly, all Washington wanted to do is to develop his farms and realize a return on his investment in western lands. His own fortunes had suffered during the war and these were the years he hoped to have a chance to rebuild them. What Larson chronicles in this work is how Washington in both private and public ways continued to be active in American affairs, reflecting a deep concern for the development of the country he helped birth.

The concern began when he visited or attempted to visit his own western holdings, only to discover the inadequacies of government under the Articles of Confederation. There was no respect for property ownership or the rule of law, and the continued presence of native Americans prevented him from visiting one of his properties. Had he gone, he probably would not have survived. Efforts to develop navigation on the Potomac exposed another weakness, no effective governance of interstate commerce in what was basically a confederation of sovereign states and a weak national government.

It was clear that the new country’s survival was imperiled unless the Articles of Confederation could be modified or replaced. Washington became a correspondent with others across the former thirteen colonies who recognized the need for a stronger form of government. These concerns led to the authorization of a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The question was whether or not Washington would attend, and likely, preside. Larson describes the dilemma he faced, to go with the risk of possible failure, or to remain home and doom the convention to likely failure. He went, and presided.

One sees the wisdom of Washington and the framers in establishing and enforcing a “gag rule” that prohibited discussing deliberations outside the convention. This allowed for ideas to be proposed that might have been quickly shot down. Larson traces Washington’s crucial work at several critical impasses, particularly around the tensions over representation between large and small states.

Washington continued to exercise an important, but behind the scenes role during ratification, working with key contacts on political strategy in key states like Pennsylvania, New York, and his own Virginia, while staying in the background as the presumptive nominee for president, which everyone expected, including Washington, as much as he longed for his plantation.

Not everything in this account is glowing or fits our idealized picture of Washington. George and Martha Washington, between them, owned over 300 slaves and his own involvement in slavery was reflected in the treatment of the Three Fifths Compromise in terms of representation, and the fugitive slave clause (Article Four, Section 2, Clause 3). Only on his death did he release his (not Martha’s) slaves. Likewise, Larson makes clear that from about the beginnings of the Revolutionary War on, Washington ceased to take communion, or believe in the deity of Christ. He believed in a God, and in divine providence, but even the minister closest to him knew of “no fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.”

Larson makes a strong case in this work that Washington was the “indispensable man” not only in the war, and in establishing the presidency, but also in the forging of a constitution that created a strong federal system. He helped cultivate the growing consensus that there was a need for a new constitution. He was perhaps the one person convention delegates would trust to preside. He stayed in touch with key figures in the states during the ratification process. It might be argued that Article Two that described the Presidential powers particularly had Washington in mind. Even in “retirement,” Washington recognized how important was establishing a system of government that ensured respect abroad, prosperity at home, and westward development. Larson shows how Washington, reluctantly perhaps at times, acted to make these three critical priorities possible.

Review: Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory

evolution

Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific TheoryEdward J. Larson. New York: Modern Library Chronicles, 2004.

Summary: A history of the development of evolutionary theory, including both the antecedents to Darwin and Russell and the extension of this theory, the controversies, both past and present that it provoked, and the genetic discoveries that have further revealed the theory’s mechanisms.

The theory of evolution is perhaps one of the most contested of scientific battlegrounds, both in terms of internal debates about aspects of the theory, and the conflict, particularly in the U.S., around this theory and at least some branches of Christian belief. What Edward J. Larson gives us here is not a scientific or theological treatise but rather a highly readable history that explains both key developments, even those preceding Darwin, and the controversies that resulted down to the time of publication (2004).

The tale begins with studies of both biological specimens and fossil finds by figures such as Cuvier and Lamarck that suggest both a great antiquity for life on earth that stretches the bounds of creation accounts in the Bible as they were understood, and also suggests both continuities and discontinuities between species in a kind of tree of life. Scientists before Darwin, as well as other thinkers thought in terms of some form of evolution but could not understand how one species developed from another. Were adaptive characteristics inherited, as in Lamarck’s proposals? How did speciation occur?

Larson discusses the work of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace who are rivals for the title of the “father of evolution.” Each was coming to similar conclusions about natural selection and were even in touch with each other and jointly published a paper on natural selection. But it was Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species, that captured public attention and led to the primary association of his name with the theory.

The book also traces the history both of subsequent key findings, particularly in Mendelian genetics and the critical work of Watson and Crick, as well as some of the darker sides of Darwinism in “social Darwinism” and eugenics trials culminating in the genocide of the Holocaust. While not laying these developments at the feet of the theory, one does see in this history the darker tendency of humans to “help natural selection along” and sometimes at any cost.

Larson also gives an even-handed overview of the anti-evolution controversies both of the Scopes trial era and more recent efforts. He profiles the principle opponents of evolution and their ideas, as well as the problematic elements in what they propose. He also chronicles more recent controversies within the scientific communities around sociobiology as well as “punctuated equilibrium” that calls into question more gradualist accumulations of adaptive traits.

What Larson does is offer us a good history that seeks to be even-handed and not polemical in explaining the rise of evolution as a theory as well as the objections raised (as well as why they have not gained traction with the wider scientific community). Without wading deep into either science or theology, he offers clear explanations of each and thus helps us understand the history of one of the most important ideas in the last two centuries. A great piece of both history and science writing for a general audience!