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The Return of George Washington by Edward J. Larson

Edward J. Larson

Reviewed by:
On March 24, 2015
Last modified:March 27, 2015


The Return of George Washington The Return of George Washington
Edward J. Larson

The title of this book seems to indicate that during the years between George Washington’s voluntary relinquishing of his command at Annapolis and his assumption of the presidency, he was truly retired from public service. In reality The Return of George Washington is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, once the facts are known.

To be sure there has been coverage of this time period, particularly of Washington’s role in the Constitutional Convention (including WWTFT’s own James Best’s –Tempest at Dawn).  However, aside from his role during the convention, the years of Washington’s life between 1783 and 1789 have not received a lot of focus. Yet, as Larson points out in his conclusion, this time was as critical as any, and Washington’s efforts on behalf of his country as significant and important as any of his others.

Washington was as indispensable to America during these middle years as before or after them.  During that pivotal phase during the country’s development, he laid the foundation for the Constitution, the government, and the sacred union of states and people that has lasted for more than 225 years and promises to continue long into the future.

How Larson arrives at this conclusion is the subject of the book.  The man Larson depicts is not the “stiff silent figure” who’s main contribution to the Constitutional Convention and ratification was his prestige and dignity.  Washington did much more than that.

Often working behind the scenes but still very much in the public imagination, he helped to bind the states into a single federal republic.

This is perhaps one of the most striking things this reviewer took from this book.  Having read multiple biographies of Washington and histories of the period, this reader needed no convincing of the indispensability of  Washington to the foundation of the United States.  What came out more strongly in this book than any other was Washington’s selflessness. Washington as a young man was ambitious and much more self interested than the Washington he became after being tempered by his experiences in the War of Independence.   Washington provides proof of the contention that acting a part long enough transforms a man into that which he is striving to emulate.  By the time he was tapped to assume the supreme command of the new American army, he was well on his way to becoming the man Larson writes about.

Washington strove to model republican virtue by refusing to accept any remuneration for his service in the Revolutionary War.  At the conclusion of the peace he voluntarily surrendered his commission to the civilian authority – which caused King George to remark in astonishment,  “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

In this reviewer’s opinion,  King George was right on the money.

This was far from a mere act to burnish his reputation.  While his reputation was of critical importance to him, and his desire to return to Mount Vernon after an 8 year hiatus during which, his private fortunes and farming business had suffered greatly in his absence, he was willing, if not eager, to risk both his reputation and relinquish his domestic tranquility for the sake of his country.

Washington put that which was most important to him at risk when he reluctantly agreed to preside over the Constitutional Convention.  His reluctance did not come from any doubt as to its importance, but rather from the risk it entailed to his own reputation and the likely sacrifices that it would require of him.  There was no guarantee of success.

Had Washington done nothing at all, his reputation would have been safe and he could have lived out his days happily pursuing his agricultural endeavors at Mount Vernon.

Instead, Washington presided over the convention and took an active, if dignified role in the proceedings.  He was the only member of the convention who never missed a day.  Washington fulfilled two roles, that of the convention’s president and as a member of the Virginia delegation.  This duality is a model of Washington in general.  He was a Virginian by birth, but an American at heart.  this fact would come into play during the fight for ratification.

Washington was eager to return to his home in Virginia after the convention concluded its business, and even held out some faint hope that his part might be done.  One suspects, that he knew, in his heart of hearts that there would be no escaping his future as the country’s first president.

If Washington thought (as indicated in some of his correspondence from this time) that there might be a chance for a peaceful retirement with someone else at the helm, he was deluding himself.   If there was unanimity between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists on any point, it was this.  Washington would be at the head of the new government.

This fact alone put the anti-Federalists at a severe disadvantage.  No matter who you were, all Americans respected and admired Washington.

Although he almost entirely refrained from publicly campaigning for ratification, his private views were not closely held.

Washington avidly kept abreast of what was going on in all the state ratifying conventions and worked behind the scenes, quietly lending his name and prestige where it would do the most good.  While no one could directly assail Washington’s character or motives, some, nonetheless found ways to cast his support for new Constitution as a result of his having been duped or misled.

Ironically, some of his biggest opposition came from within his own state.  George Mason had been a member of the Convention, and had refused to sign, famously saying that he would sooner cut off his arm than sign it without a Bill of Rights.  Governor Edmund Randolph, another member of the Virginia delegation also refused to sign – although he ultimately supported it doing the state’s ratification battle.  But, by far, Washington’s biggest political adversary in Virginia was Patrick Henry.

While not a disciplined debater, Henry had a gift for stirring audiences with impassioned speeches that played more on emotion than reason ….   Henry employed this approach at the convention to transform was supposed to a clause-by-clause consideration of the Constitution into a free-for-all in which the federalists scrambled to refute his scattered charges.

For two weeks, it [the ratification convention], did not proceed in a systematic fashion but instead followed Henry’s lead as he discharged random “bolts,” as Henry Lee called them, with federalists responding to each.

But, at that time, while powerful emotional rhetoric had its effect, so did a clear appeal to logic. Finally,

… it picked up speed after members began reviewing the document clause by clause and fairly raced through the final articles.

… one member explained to Washington in a June 7 letter, “Madison followed, and with such a force of reasoning, and a display of such irresistible truths, that the opposition seemed to have quitted the field.”

While Washington’s relationship with Mason and Henry never recovered from their political rift, this was not always the case and his relationship with New York governor George Clinton transcended their political differences, even though Clinton did his best to oppose the Constitution from the onset.

 Even after New York’s two antifederalist delegates walked out of the [Constitutional] Convention in July, leaving the state without a vote, Washington did not blame Clinton and reprimanded Hamilton for doing so.   “It is with unfeigned concern that I perceive that a political dispute has arisen between Governor Clinton and yourself,” Washington wrote to Hamilton about the matter.  “For both of you I have the highest esteem and regard.  … When the situation of this Country calls loudly for unanimity & vigor, it is to be lamented that Gentlemen of talents and character should disagree in their sentiments for promoting the public weal, but unfortunately, this ever has been, and more than probable, ever will be the case.”  Washington never offered such a defense for Mason, Henry, [Richard Henry] Lee, Gerry, or any other antifederalist.

But, regardless of any hard feelings between Patrick Henry and George Washington, once ratification was accomplished, and the business of selecting a new president became front and center, no one, not even Henry could avoid voting for Washington.

Each elector in a state got two votes and it was understood that one of these must be cast for Washington.  This put Henry in a pickle two ways.  First, while it as understood that one vote must be cast for Washington, it would be unthinkable for a Virginian elector not to cast his vote for Washington – a fellow Virginian.  Second, because of the rules – no state elector could cast more than one vote for a candidate from his his state – no other Virginian could receive a vote.

Washington was elected unanimously, and the Federalists largely swept the election.  George Washington had returned.


1 Ann Herzer { 03.24.15 at 12:58 pm }

This review makes me want to order another book on Washington! He did not have the formal education like Jefferson, but he was a surveyor which required certification and knowledge. Above all, he was a leader for freedom. Thanks for the review. I enjoyed as usual.


2 Jeff Edelman { 03.26.15 at 10:23 pm }

Having read some of the Federalists’ and Anti-federalist papers and with things the way they are now, it seems to me that the Anti-federalist were correct. Let us not forget that it was the Anti-federalist that pushed for a Bill of Rights.


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