George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart is published by Dutton Books. Click HERE to learn more about the author and the book.
Of the buying and reading of books about George Washington, there is no end. I have at least a couple of shelves that are devoted solely to the man. Add to that all of the books about the War for Independence, the Constitution, the early years of the Republic, and the Presidency, and I am guessing that the numbers go up in the hundreds.
But I was immediately attracted to David Stewart’s biographical study of Washington due to its subtitle. I have typically thought of Washington as primarily a soldier and farmer who, nevertheless, proved to be a successful politician. The history of military men who reached the Presidency is an interesting story in itself. Washington, Jackson, Eisenhower, and some of the post Civil War President Generals were successful at transitioning their military skills and experiences into political leadership. Theodore Roosevelt was a politician who took advantage of the Spanish-American War to upgrade his resume and fulfill some of his bucket-list agenda. William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were both in office for too short periods to be ranked. Grant is usually the poster boy for the great general who makes a lousy political leader. (Maybe Ron Chernow’s biography has offset that.)
As it turns out, Washington was not a Johnny-come-lately when he took the oath of office to be President. He spent quite a few years in Virginia serving in the legislative branch. He was active both in trying to win elections and in trying to affect and influence legislation. He was not, in other words, purely a Virginia farmer who got called away to military service.
At the same time as Washington was doing political service, he was actively looking for and finding opportunities to serve in the various frontier campaigns under the British army. One has to realize that young Washington would never have been dreaming of being President or of leading an army that was opposing the British.
He was, in contrast, honing his skills in battle, military leadership, and the politics of military leadership. And, as this book strongly emphasizes, Washington’s political and military skills needed honing. He made more than a few blunders, and he was (surprise! surprise!) prone to equivocate, minimize, and reinterpret failures and blunders. He worked to get on the good side of those who were in charge. That sounds a bit self-serving for the Father of Our Country, but it is a necessary skill for people who are climbing the ladder of success.
And, Washington was a grand and capable actor, which was best demonstrated when he donned his old military uniform at the meeting of the Continental Congress gathering that chose him for leading the Continental Army.
Washington, as Stewart points out, won four key elections in his life unanimously. An occasional three point basketball shot may be lucky, but four in a row says much more about the player than luck. Washington was unanimously chosen to lead the Continental army. Some years later, he was the unanimous choice to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Then he set an unbroken record for being unanimously chosen by the electoral college twice as President. (It is interesting to speculate what might have occurred if Washington had sought a third term, for his fan base had declined and criticisms had increased.)
Some of Washington’s greatest political triumphs occurred not in the legislative assemblies where he had been a member and not in the Presidency. They occurred during his time as a military commander. Six years in the field with an always under-supplied and under-manned army did not yield Washington many great victories. Indeed, it can be argued that his success was usually found in avoiding annihilation of his army and the Patriot cause. Then there was a great victory–Saratoga–but it was not Washington’s leadership there.
Horatio Gates receives the honors for that victory, even though it can be better attributed to a then honorable Benedict Arnold. A simple proposition followed that great victory: If Washington can’t win a battle, but Gates wins not only a battle, but captures a whole army, then….
There are plenty of details in the military battles and army movements that Washington experienced that allow armchair strategists today and observers at the time to question the man and his methods. And ambition was a driving force in many a heart of the soldiers in that war. Intrigues and cabals between men in uniform and men in the halls of government not only questioned Washington’s leadership, but took stealthy steps toward removing him.
Washington survived and trumped his opponents on the American side with a skill that may have been often lacking when confronting his British military opponents. He had to cajole and plead and maneuver his way through the political labyrinth to both keep his position and procure goods.
Valley Forge was not just a miserably cold place where his army struggled to survive. It was also where he was able to keep his political enemies unbalanced and hold on to his power.
Washington’s presidency witnessed many more political battles lost and won. Washington learned, to his disgust, that going down to Congress to talk out a plan was not productive. He learned well how to work with congressional leaders from his distant perch. It is interesting that James Madison, quirky mercurial Little Jemmy, was a key Washington ally for many years.
Perhaps his greatest triumph and one that has rarely been equaled and never exceeded was his balancing act of having both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in his cabinet. They were, perhaps, the two most brilliant political thinkers of their time (and most times since then), but they were diametrically opposed to one another in terms of political philosophies. People still identify themselves as Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians. (Jefferson awaits his revival of interest based on a musical.)
Another fact about Washington’s presidency is his health. The demands of the office, what we would call stressors today, were many. Washington, although far younger than our last two Presidents, was often suffering from a variety of health problems. The years in the fields of battle and other factors made him an old and sick man. But he persevered. No doubt, he looked forward to the end of his first term when he could go home to Mount Vernon. But he basically got roped in and “guilted” into serving an additional term.
Eight years were enough. In his short time as an ex-President, he did face one time when it looked as though he might have to wear a military uniform again. John Adams, Washington’s lack luster successor, did achieve one thing–he kept the US out of war with France. That kept Washington from being coerced into leading an army.
I could name a dozen or more great and delightful books on Washington the man, the general, and the President. But one would do well to either start with this fine work or, like me, supplement his or her knowledge of Washington by reading it.
This is a fine, readable, and informative study of a great leader during perilous times. It is also a reminder that our own times resemble a softball game with out of shape amateurs manning the pitching mound and the bases.