The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789

The Return of George Washington Book Cover The Return of George Washington
Edward Larson
History
William Morrow
October 7, 2014
384

After commanding the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, General Washington stunned the world: He retired. Four years later, as he rode from Mount Vernon to lead the Constitutional Convention, he was the one American who could united the rapidly disintegrating country. This is the little-known story of the return of George Washington. In this groundbreaking new look at our first citizen, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Edward J. Larson masterfully chronicles how George Washington saved the United States by coming out of retirement four years after the War of Independence to lead a country on the brink of dissolution and secure its future. Though the period between the Revolution and the Presidency has previously been neglected in studies of Washington's life, Larson's striking reassessment shows that Washington's greatness in fact rests on these years—1783 to 1789—and rightfully elevates our foremost Founding Father's "forgotten years" to a central place in the American story. In December 1783, Washington, the most powerful and popular man in America, stepped down as commander in chief and returned to private life as a farmer and landowner. Yet as Washington found happiness in successfully growing his Virginia estate, the fledgling American experiment foundered under the Articles of Confederation. Sectional bickering paralyzed government; debts went unpaid; the economy stagnated; national security was neglected; the union of states was in peril. When a Constitutional Convention was called to forge a new government, its chances of success were slim. Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leaders realized only one American—the retired hero George Washington—could unite the fractious states. After months of anguish, Washington answered the call and left his beloved Mount Vernon in the spring of 1787 to preside over the convention in Philadelphia. Although Washington is overlooked in most accounts, Larson brilliantly uncovers Washington's vital role in shaping the Constitution—and shows, as never before, how it was only with Washington's spirited behind-the-scenes influence that the delegates passed, and the states later ratified, the founding document that has guided our government to this day. From the moment of General Washington's resignation to his victory in the first federal elections and his triumphant inauguration in New York as our first President, The Return of George Washington is a landmark work that will forever change our understanding and appreciation of America's great founder.

“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee

This is a book that wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but not in a bad way. Reading about George Washington is always a little daunting to me, perhaps for the same reasons that people found him such a formidable person in life. He is a hard man to learn about because of his aloofness, stoicism, and silence on most things.  This book really brings those qualities to light. The constant assertion I find in almost everything written about George Washington is that were it not for him, there would be no United States of America. This book really brings that to light.  But it also points out most graphically that it wasn’t so much what he did that earned him that reputation — though his actual deeds were miraculous — but it was also what he didn’t do and say.

This book is well written, but it isn’t about exactly what I was expecting — based on the title. It does cover George Washington’s return to the political scene following the American Revolution and his “retirement” from public service. But it is also an excellent exploration of the Constitutional Convention, and what went into building the American government. Larson is gifted in presenting history as we understand it,  alongside a closer presentation of reality and helps separate fact from fiction. From the great images and artwork down to the reality of the debates that raged in Philidelphia throughout the course of this national milestone.

Larson is particularly careful to present Washington, based on surviving records, as well as historical texts. His writing is objective and provides and insight into who Washington was, and what drove him — so far as it is possible for us to know the real George Washington. I was particularly impressed with his handling of the things we frequently take for granted or overlook in Washington as a patriot and as a man. Larson allows us to see how important it was for Washington to not only do the things he did and say what he said — but also rely on his gift of knowing when to stay quiet and allow his presence and reputation to speak for itself.

One particularly impressive aspect of this book is his handling of the debates of the Constitutional Convention and how those debates went on to shape so many aspects of the United States political ethos. He looks at the split between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists and how that division would rage for years — and laid the groundwork for what has come to be the political party system of today. He demonstrates the relationships that were forged and the ones that were destroyed through the debating process and gives a much grittier look at many of the personalities of the founding fathers. Larson also points out many of the fears and driving issues that motivated the development of the constitution, as well as the long and grueling road to ratification. But through it all, he never loses sight of the man he starts out writing about.

This is a great book for including in my book challenge this year — as it gives a foundational understanding the United States presidency and how it started. This is one book that would be better for reading as a follow up to a general overall history of George Washington’s life, as there is a definite line of demarcation between Washington’s public service before and during the Revolution and his public life after. This book clearly deals with the after but doesn’t delve too far into what went on before his first retirement, other than the resigning of his commission.

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