(6/8) The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783-1789, by Edward J. Larson

Nov 06, 04:46 AM

6 of 8 

The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783-1789, by Edward J. Larson

By David Waldstreicher

Oct. 31, 2014 • If the American Revolution has been remembered like a five-act play, the years after the war are the tension-filled fourth, so suspenseful as to border on melodrama. Even the heroes seem almost hysterical. John Quincy Adams, 20 years old in 1787, deemed it the “critical period” even before its conclusion. The new states went their own democratic ways in dealing with a credit crisis and left the Continental Congress unable to pay its debts. A high point of revolutionary radicalism, it was a low point for what Adams called the “bonds of union.”

It is not a period we usually associate with George Washington, the retired commander who became America’s first president in 1789. Biographers usually depict him happily rotating his Mount Vernon crops, barely aware that there could be another call to service. The general had distanced himself from a Congress that couldn’t pay his army’s bills and from the mutinous results. Seizing power like Caesar was never really an option; returning home like Cincinnatus made a virtue of necessity. But as Edward J. Larson reveals in “The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789,” there’s more to the story than Washington’s republican refusal of a crown. 

The general kept in touch with political leaders from several states. Like most generals who survive to fight another day at a higher rank, Washington was also a politician, and a better one than his image might suggest. He knew when to save political capital and when to spend it. He played a “crucial role as a public figure and political leader” by networking in favor of a stronger central government. 

Precisely because of his experience during the war, Washington worried about frontier security and international opinion of the republican experiment. He made it clear that he favored a revised union, but did not go public with his concerns until others did. Larson praises Washington’s acute sense of political theater: He skipped a meeting of state leaders in Annapolis, and even “played Hamlet” on attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Hanging back allowed his actions and carefully planted statements to have maximum impact. He gave no one ammunition to use against him or the nationalist cause. Washington’s nonpartisan, cross-regional appeal depended upon seeming to be above particular interests. He played this role expertly as president of the convention, pushing nationalist measures behind the scenes while enforcing the convention’s high-minded tone — and its secrecy. The surprisingly flexible and strong presidential office could then be devised with him in mind.