BOOK REVIEW: George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart (New York, NY: Dutton, Penguin Random House, 2021)
One of the most recent biographies of the first president got this reviewer comparing the majestic and physically intimidating George Washington with the short but brilliant fictional character Tyrion Lannister from the series Game of Thrones. This is not a far-fetched comparison, although imagining the two of them together facing each other would make one chuckle. A conversation between Lord Jorah Mormont and his queen, Danearys Stormborn, in the second episode of the eighth and final season (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”) illustrates one important ability of both Lannister and Washington. The Queen was angry with some advice from one of her most important advisors, but Mormont was quick to defend him and point out what was most important:
Mormont:“But the mind behind all those words . . . .”
Danearys: “He’s made mistakes . . . serious mistakes.”
Mormont:“As have we all. He owns his and learns from them.”
George Washington never claimed to know everything. He sought advice constantly, such as asking his generals to give him written answers to questions he posed about military situations, allowing him to consider all points of view. He made some serious mistakes early in his career. The French and Indian War started because of his actions, and men died due to his limited experience in the field. But, just like Tyrion Lannister, George Washington owned his mistakes and learned from them.
The ability of Washington to learn from people and circumstances is at the center of George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart, author of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution. Stewart’s book examines all the people and major events of Washington’s life, showing how each person or situation contributed to the political education of a national icon. Washington was human, after all, but was able to stuff “his sixty-seven years with remarkable achievements. This book examines a principal feature of his greatness that can be overlooked: a mastery of politics that allowed him to dominate the most crucial period of American history” (page 9).
Before jumping into the biography, Stewart obliges the reader by providing a “Dramatis Personae” of the important people who somehow influenced Washington. Almost all of them should be familiar to Washington scholars: John Adams, Henry Knox, Lawrence Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, “Citizen” Genet, Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, and Virginian politicians and royal officials. The book is then divided into three parts. The first sixteen chapters cover Washington’s life from growing up in Virginia to his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759. Part I shows an inexperienced and impulsive young man who had high aspirations. His father died when he was only eleven, and so he looked up to his half-brother, Lawrence, who became a surrogate father. And contrary to popular belief, his mother was not the oppressive figure historians have made her out to be. She did her best to raise him. He became a surveyor and learned about the western frontier, and that knowledge turned into an opportunity to lead men at the beginning of the French and Indian War. Washington failed many times, but continued to learn from politicians such as Gov. Robert Dinwiddie and British military leaders such as Gen. Edward Braddock. When he married, he became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. At first an ineffective politician, Washington quietly watched debates and procedures from the sidelines. This would serve him well when he later had to deal with the Continental Congress and then the Constitutional Convention.
Part II chronicles events leading to the American Revolution. Washington was focused on Mount Vernon, which he finally acquired, and the events following the Stamp Act and other oppressive British policies. His political education continued as he worked with Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and a young Thomas Jefferson. He wrote the Fairfax Resolves with George Mason in 1774 in response to the Coercive Acts that punished Boston for the destruction of tea. Washington’s election to the Continental Congress put him in contact with people from all the British colonies, strengthening his national sentiments. When the Second Continental Congress needed a general to take over the New England militias, Washington’s experience made him the perfect choice.
Part III, the largest section of the book, consists of twenty-one chapters and first examines the challenges Washington faced as commander of the Continental Army, including Valley Forge, the Conway Cabal, Yorktown, and the Newburgh Conspiracy. By the end of the war, he was the unequalled master of the new United States, and yet he turned away from power and became the American Cincinnatus. His attempts at retirement would prove temporary since he was constantly called upon to sacrifice for the nation. He advocated a stronger central government and actively helped with the creation of the Constitution. Then he combined all of his skills to take on the office of the presidency, which no one had ever done previously. His experiences as a military leader and a politician were necessary to get the nation to survive its violent birth. By the time Washington finally left public life, his star was losing its luster. It was not because of his inability to lead, but rather circumstances in Europe that he could not control. Testimonies of his final days and hours are difficult to read because the reader has by then been taken in by the “greatness” of Washington.
The fifty-second chapter, “Wrestling with Sin,” deserves particular attention. It is accepted that Washington, a wealthy Virginia planter, owned slaves. This fact is referred to several times throughout Stewart’s book, but the penultimate chapter is devoted to the contradiction of Washington being a leader of a freedom-loving republic while owning human beings. Washington’s views on slavery, according to him, started to change after he saw African American soldiers fighting for American liberty in the Revolutionary War, but he never truly acted on those views. It was only when he died that he became an early “abolitionist,” providing for the independence of his slaves in his will (after Martha died). The placement of this chapter is interesting. After all of the anecdotes of how Washington continued to evolve and learn from his experiences, the reader is suddenly reminded of the reality of slavery. And although Washington’s education was ongoing, and he owned and learned from his mistakes, he failed in this one crucial moral issue.
George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father is a fresh perspective on what made the general unique. He was not as much of a thinker as the other founders (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton), but he had advantages that the others were never able to acquire. His brilliance came from living through war and quietly taking in what politicians did and spoke. Stewart’s lengthy biography has a comfortable narrative style that makes for an easy read. The focus on the question of “how” concerning Washington’s political abilities is valuable for all scholars of the Revolution and the Early Republic.