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.