BOOK REVIEW: ‘Blood of Tyrants’

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BLOOD OF TYRANTS: GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE FORGING OF THE PRESIDENCY
By Logan Beirne
Encounter Books, $27.99, 420 pages

Consider this scenario for a moment. It’s 1783, and the American Revolutionary War has ended. The scrappy Colonist forces, led by Gen. George Washington, have defeated the odds, beaten Britain and the European powers (France, Spain and the Netherlands) and won independence. The world was now their oyster, and the future shined brightly.

While it sounds like a rosy picture, it was far from perfect in reality. Washington and the Founders faced a partisan political environment, numerous scandals and various financial crises. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s further proof that history often repeats itself.

In Logan Beirne’s new book, “Blood of Tyrants: George Washington and the Forging of the Presidency,” the important political lessons of the past are given a fresh new perspective. The author is an Olin Scholar at Yale Law School who practiced as a lawyer at the New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. Of interest, his family is descended from not only former President James Madison, but also Revolutionary War patriots who fought for America’s freedom. Hence, Mr. Beirne’s genealogical and personal interest in history, politics and the military makes for an enjoyable read.

At the Revolutionary War’s end, the United States was in some disarray. Early Americans didn’t “conceive of themselves as one indissoluble nation composed of thirteen parts, but rather as a voluntary confederation of independent allied states where many citizens felt greater allegiance to their own region than to any national government.” If an ex-soldier felt a greater bond to New Jersey, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania than the country he just helped liberate, this was a highly problematic situation. It would be the political environment the first commander in chief, Washington, faced on a daily basis.

Mr. Beirne writes, “Washington was internationally recognized as liberty’s greatest champion” and, in the reprinted words of author Gordon S. Wood, “a living embodiment of all that classical republican virtue the age was eagerly striving to recover.” He had shied away from the public spotlight after the British had been defeated, and watched the Congress’ inability to keep things in order. The author amusingly describes this situation as “quarreling children were growing into rowdy teens, and the feeble grandmother was losing control.” Meanwhile, the “American ‘shadow’ government was unable to reverse the nation’s descent into anarchy.” Washington’s retirement to Mount Vernon was clearly on hold.

The great military leader returned to the political spotlight for Philadelphia’s Constitutional Convention. The delegates he worked with were “an eclectic assemblage of minds,” including the 26-year-old Jonathan Dayton and the “sickly 81-year-old sage” Benjamin Franklin. The Articles of Confederation were set aside, and the building of a new nation began. Although the principles of liberty and freedom remained supreme, there were various opinions about the best way to govern — and who should do it. As the time came “to contemplate how to allocate military powers within the new government,” Mr. Beirne writes, “Americans looked to the decorated war hero.” The choice of Washington as America’s first president was rather obvious — and unanimous.

Yet as “Blood of Tyrants” reveals in chapter after chapter, Washington had many opponents and opportunists lurking in the midst during the Revolutionary War. Many people “feared that he might use his military power to subjugate the politicians and strangle the infant republic in its crib.” One of America’s Founders, John Adams, was in that camp and often kept a “close eye” on him. Thomas Jefferson didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Washington, and Alexander Hamilton had his own motives and agenda.

Even so, Washington was, to borrow the author’s phrase, a “new type of dictator.” While the “supreme authority of the nation remained with the people” as represented by the Congress, the “American commander had full military power to defend them.” At the same time, Washington took great pains to ensure Americans’ rights and liberties were protected. Based on the actions of Loyalists as well as traitorous Americans like Benedict Arnold, it would have been easy to fall into a state of lawlessness. Instead, he discouraged “patriot groups from taking the law into their own hands” and ignoring the courts altogether — and more impressively, “was unique among the great revolutionary leads of history in that he never declared martial law.”

In Mr. Beirne’s view, “America’s current challenges in the ongoing [war on terrorism] mirror those that Gen. Washington faced well over two centuries ago.” He’s right, as there are some remarkable similarities in the “fierce debates today concerning war tactics, drone strikes on Americans, torture, military tribunals, citizens’ rights during wartime, and how to reconcile the needs of national defense with liberty and self-rule.” The quest to achieve democracy, liberty and freedom is never an easy one. Americans can, therefore, learn a great deal from the struggles that George Washington and the Founders faced, tackled and ultimately resolved.

Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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