Who Was Washington?

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President Washington was, if anything, more resolutely remote than even General Washington had been, and it is a credit to Smith’s skill at digging out telling details that the reader comes away with a vivid sense of what it must have been like for this proud champion of efficiency and self-discipline to preside over the untried government of a raw and resolutely fractious republic whose survival was by no means guaranteed. The non-Indian population of the United States numbered just four million when Washington was sworn in as President. The infantry at his command comprised only “one thousand two hundred and sixteen noncommissioned officers, privates and Musicians.” The employees of the executive branch who answered to Washington were fewer than the slaves who plowed his Virginia fields.

All the events of his Presidency are here: the successful struggles to establish the Bank of the United States and choose the site for a new capital and the unsuccessful one to end the bitter quarreling between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton; the delicate, largely thankless diplomatic maneuvering that kept the rivalry between France and Britain from swallowing up his fledgling country; and Washington’s own soldierly willingness to take up arms again, even against his fellow citizens, that kept the whiskey rebels from flouting the authority of his fledgling government.

Through it all Washington kept whatever fears and frustrations he felt mostly to himself. “In a government which depends so much on its first stages on public opinion,” he said, “much circumspection is still necessary for those who are engaged in its administration.” In the spring of 1791, for example, he took off on a nineteen-hundred-mile Presidential Progress through the South, enduring hour after jarring, dusty hour in a carriage drawn by two white horses, accepting with as much dignity as he could the tributes of the crowds that came out to cheer the “first treasure of America” at every crossroads—kicking up still more dust in the process—and attending tedious formal dinners, at all of which he offered the same safely nonpartisan toast: “The town we are in, prosperity to its inhabitants.” His innermost feelings were confined to his diary: “It is not easy to say on which road—the one I went or the one I came—the entertainment is most indifferent—but with truth it may be added that both are bad.”

President Washington was even more remote than General Washington had been, yet he was more vulnerable and human too.

Uniformly courteous in public, in private he was an astringent, unsentimental judge of men. Faced with choosing a new Army commander after Indians under Little Turtle had routed the spectacularly incompetent general Arthur St. Clair in the Ohio Valley in 1791, he privately ticked off the failings of several of his old comrades-in-arms. Benjamin Lincoln was “sober, honest and brave…but infirm.” Baron von Steuben was still a skilled drillmaster but “impetuous in his temper, ambitious and a foreigner.” He finally settled on Anthony Wayne, whose reputation for stubborn daring evidently outweighed Washington’s unflattering summary of his character: “More active and enterprising than judicious and cautious. No economist it is feared. Open to flattery, vain, easily imposed upon, and liable to be drawn into scrapes. Too indulgent (the effect perhaps of some of the causes just mentioned) to his officers and men. Whether sober, or a little addicted to the bottle, I know not.” Wayne’s appointment was one of Washington’s wisest: three years later, at Fallen Timbers, he overwhelmed Little Turtle’s warriors and opened up much of the Northwest Territory to settlement.

In the end, Smith argues, it is as much what Washington did not do in the office he virtually created as what he did that would have ensured his primary place in our history, even if he had never strapped on a sword: “He did not take sides in the Continental wars that swept Europe as a result of France’s revolutionary experiment, buying precious time for the United States to evolve a sense of nationhood. He did not organize a king’s party, nor regard himself as a democratically chosen monarch…nor designate his vice president to serve as a kind of prime minister, nor turn the secretary of the treasury into an American chancellor of the exchequer, all of which he might easily have done. Most important of all, by voluntarily relinquishing office at the end of two terms, Washington forced a world more accustomed to Caesars than Cincinnatus to revise its definition of greatness.”