Is another biography of George Washington really necessary? A Google search reveals some nine hundred already exist, not to mention more than five thousand journal articles that chronicle some portion of his life. But the answer turns out to be a resounding yes, and David O. Stewart makes that case magnificently with his latest work, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, an extremely well-written, insightful, and surprisingly innovative contribution to the historiography.
Many years ago, I recall reading the classic study, Washington: The Indispensable Man, by James Thomas Flexner, which looks beyond his achievements to put emphasis on his most extraordinary contribution, defined not by what he did but what he deliberately did not do: seize power and rule as tyrant. This, of course, is no little thing, as seen in the pages of history from Caesar to Napoleon. When told he would resign his commission and surrender power to a civilian government, King George III—who no doubt would have had him hanged (or worse) had the war gone differently—famously declared that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington demonstrated that greatness again when he voluntarily—you might say eagerly—stepped down after his tenure as President of the United States to retire to private life. Indispensable he was: it is difficult to imagine the course of the American experiment had another served in his place in either of those pivotal roles.
But there is more to Washington than that, and some of it is less than admirable. Notably, there was Washington’s heroic fumble as a young Virginia officer leading colonial forces to warn away the French at what turned into the Battle of Jumonville Glen and helped to spark the French & Indian War. Brash, headstrong, arrogant, thin-skinned, and ever given to an unshakable certitude that his judgment was the sole correct perspective in every matter, the young Washington distinguished himself for his courage and his integrity while at the same time routinely clashing with authority figures, including former mentors that he frequently left exasperated by his demands for recognition.
Biographers tend to visit this period of his life and then fast-forward two decades ahead to the moment when the esteemed if austere middle-aged Washington showed up to the Continental Congress resplendent in his military uniform, the near-unanimous choice to lead the Revolutionary Army in the struggle against Britain. But how did he get here? In most studies, it is not clear. But this is where Stewart shines! The author, whose background is the law rather than academia—he was once a constitutional lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.—has proved himself a brilliant historian in several fine works, including his groundbreaking reassessment of a key episode of the early post-Civil War era, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy. And in Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, Stewart’s careful research, analytical skills, and intuitive approach successfully resurrected portions of James Madison’s elusive personality that had been otherwise mostly lost to history.
This talent is on display here, as well, as Stewart adeptly examines and interprets Washington’s evolution from Jumonville Glen to Valley Forge. Washington’s own personality is something of a conundrum for biographers, as he can seem to be simultaneously both selfless and self-centered. The young Washington so frequently in turn infuriated and alienated peers and superiors alike that it may strike us as fully remarkable that this is the same individual who could later harness the talents and loyalty of both rival generals during the war and the outsize egos of fellow Founders as the new Republic took shape. Stewart demonstrates that Washington was the author of his own success in this arena, quietly in touch with his strengths and weaknesses while earning respect and cultivating goodwill over the years as he established himself as a key figure in the Commonwealth. Washington himself was not in this regard a changed man as much as he was a more mature man who taught himself to modify his demeanor and his behavior in the company of others for mutual advantage. This too, is no small thing.
The subtitle of this book—The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father—is thus hardly accidental, the latest contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life. Collectively, these studies serve to underscore that politics is ever at the heart of leadership, as well as that great leaders are not born fully formed, but rather evolve and emerge. George Washington perhaps personifies the most salient example of this phenomenon.
The elephant in the room of any examination of Washington—or the other Virginia Founders who championed liberty and equality for that matter—is slavery. Like Jefferson and Madison and a host of others, Washington on various occasions decried the institution of enslaving human beings—while he himself held hundreds as chattel property. Washington is often credited with freeing the enslaved he held direct title to in his will, but that hardly absolves him of the sin of a lifetime of buying, selling, and maintaining an unpaid labor force for nothing less than his own personal gain, especially since he was aware of the moral blemish in doing so. Today’s apologists often caution that is unfair to judge those who walked the earth in the late eighteenth-century by our own contemporary standards, but the reality is that these were Enlightenment-era men that in their own words declared slavery abhorrent while—like Jefferson with his famous “wolf by the ear” cop-out—making excuses to justify participating in and perpetuating a cruel inhumanity that served their own economic self-interests. As biographer, Stewart’s strategy for this dimension of Washington’s life is to treat very little with it in the course of the narrative, while devoting the second to last chapter to a frank and balanced discussion of the ambivalence that governed the thoughts and actions of the master of Mount Vernon. It is neither whitewash nor condemnation.
Stewart’s study is by no means hagiography, but the author clearly admires his subject. Washington gets a pass for his shortcomings at Jumonville, and he is hardly held to strict account for his role as an enslaver. Still, the result of Stewart’s research, analysis, and approach is the most readable and best single-volume account of Washington’s life to date. This is a significant contribution to the scholarship that I suspect will long be deemed required reading.
I reviewed other works by David O. Stewart here:
My review of Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt, referenced above, is here: Review of: Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, by Robert Dallek