Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book Review - The Presidency of George Washington

This was not in my reading pile. However, after I finished Robertson's Harmony of the Gospels, I wasn't quite ready to tackle the next book in the pile, which is Steinbeck's East of Eden. But I had in the pile of books on the end table between Lynda's and my reading chairs a thin volume she picked up somewhere, The Presidency of George Washington, by Jack D. Warren, Jr.; The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 2000, ISBN 0-931917-34-4. Warren is one of the major modern editors of George Washington's papers, which will run to twenty or so volumes when done. Actually, since that was written in 2000, that editing might be done by now, I'll have to check.

This book is a cross between scholarly and popular. Warren's work is almost all from original sources, both Washington's outgoing correspondence, and some incoming. Official state papers were another source, as were newspapers and pamphlets from the period.

I suppose I haven't read much about George Washington's presidency. I remember reading a book about the first Congress, which would have touched on it, but that was long ago. Washington's main task was to start the new nation off on a sound footing and hold it together. Fears of it splintering into multiple nations was real. The government under the Articles of Confederation was a disaster. Already sectionalism and partisanship were beginning, as the agrarian South and the commercial North distrusted each other, and the growing West distrusted them both. The national debt was sky high as a result of the revolutionary war. Some of the problems he had to face were:
  • Establishing precedents for almost everything, and to do so in a way that befitted a representative republic, to downplay fears that the American experiment would fail and a monarchy would be the result, also in a way that made the nation respectable to the European monarchies.
  • Establish sound government financial policies.
  • Provide governance for the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Avoid being drawn in to the European war that started as a result of the French Revolution, which happened just a few months after he took office.
  • Sooth over the conflict between his two most important cabinet members, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
  • Establish the national capitol somewhere.
  • Give his citizens reason for hope that they could truly govern themselves.
I think we tend to forget that the government established by our founding fathers in the Constitution, after trial and error, was a huge experiment. At that time no such government existed. The British parliamentary monarchy was much different government. Perhaps Washington's biggest task was simply to prove that the experimental government would not collapse. That it didn't collapse is shown, in Warren's words, to have been much the result of Washington's leadership in those crucial first eight years.

The book is only ninety-six pages of text, with four pages of end notes, two of suggested reading, and a decent index. The book reads longer than its pages, however. The margins are somewhat small, and few illustrations are used. The scholarly language does not lend itself to a long session of reading. I was able to get through a chapter a night, or at times only half a chapter--if I waited until too late in the evening when my brain couldn't handle it.

This one is a keeper. I'm not sure whether I will ever read it again, but it is a good reference book, and perhaps I could pull some articles from it, or use the footnotes and sources as springboards for additional research. If you run across it, get it and read it. You won't be sorry.

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