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Monday, February 3, 2014

“Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation”, by Richard Norton Smith

424 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0395524428

Revered but remote, George Washington rarely evokes passions rendered Lincoln, Jefferson, or even FDR. Perhaps he did his job too well; after all, he was the first executive of a radical experiment, daily vulnerable to foreign and domestic threats that could easily foreclose a young republic. Some contemporaries compared him to a king, but he helped sever monarchical bonds (English and French) and stepped down (with relief) after two terms. He became the rock that sustained a new nation, but remains to many an ephemeral legend shrouded in patriotic cliches.

This volume exposes the man (and the myth) in a broad chronicle of Washington’s life during his eight-year Presidency and his almost three years afterward to his death (his youth is also briefly related). He navigated many trials (nationalization of state debt, capital location, the Whiskey Rebellion, Jay’s Treaty, yellow fever, primitive medicine, slavery, native nations, the French Revolution, British and Spanish relations, etc.), but proved a consummate pragmatist irrevocably focused on national self-interest. Everything he did (as he knew at the time) became precedent and the republic survived. In addition to politics, we get pieces that tell us how Washington felt about many other subjects, such as the building of what would become Washington D.C. The narrative is sometimes interrupted by small stories; for example, who dined with Washington one evening and who argued with whom. I learned to regard these breaks as information about who was in his larger circle and what was considered fair dinner conversation in his company.

There are some surprises on the personal side: a lack of formal schooling, a happy (childless) marriage, a sociability that delighted in attending dances but insisted on maintaining formal distance, renowned horsemanship, a preference for agriculture, a modesty that eschewed salaries (though accepted expense), dental torment, and natural hair (he never wore a wig, despite portraits). I felt that the author drives to two conclusions. One is in the first half of chapter 13, An Honorable Discharge: here the author explains the significance of Washington’s Farewell Address in terms of the man, the country he fought to create, and the Constitution he helped create and to which he yielded as President. This is worth all the reading that came before. The second conclusion is the Epilogue in which the author tries to redress the common myth of Washington as the cold icon on the dollar bill; his famous reserve was more likely the cautious deliberation of a self-educated man. Like Lincoln, he proved more sagacious than elite subordinates. His pragmatism (when followed) has served us and the world well throughout subsequent history.

By the end, the author convinced me of Washington’s greatness as the man who led the new republic into fairly using its new Constitution. (I think we should be thankful he considered farming Mount Vernon more rewarding than political leadership). Washington was the rarest of military heroes – he chose to be a visionary guardian of the new country instead of riding his reputation into a dictatorship. Young America was very fortunate.

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