I always have to suppress a horse laugh when conservative friends piously assure me they are “strict constructionists” when it comes to interpreting our revered U.S. Constitution. The Mosaic myth that our founding document was set in stone by visionary statesmen who studded it with inherent virtues that can be tampered with only at our peril, is just that — a myth.
The painfully reserved George Washington would have laughed, too, to hear such nonsense. As this thoroughly researched and delightfully written book makes clear, it was Washington, more than James Madison or any other Founding Father, who was the driving political force that caused the Constitution to be drafted, then ratified. And it was Washington who used that same vaguely worded and incomplete document to create the modern U.S. presidency and the framework of the federal government we have today.
It is easy to see how schoolbook history tends to glide over the decade from 1787 (when he presided over the Constitutional Convention) through the eight years (1789-1797) when he was president. The feuds and maneuverings of other, more colorful Founding Fathers (pious, slave-breeding Thomas Jefferson; grasping, envy-ridden John Adams; often frivolous Ben Franklin; demagogic Patrick Henry; and petulant George Mason) catch the eye more easily.
Author Harlow Giles Unger adds a much-needed new dimension to the Washington portrait, that of the skilled, indeed unrivaled political strategist who created order and structure out of the chaos — both economic and political — that threatened the very survival of the new republic. Mr. Unger’s long career as a historian clearly benefited from a tour as the visiting scholar at the fine Mount Vernon Library.
Mr. Unger’s story of Washington’s evolution as America’s premier political strategist begins three years after the often painted moment on Dec. 7, 1783, when the general informed his cadre of officers that he was resigning his commission and returning to a home he had visited only sporadically since 1775.
I also have an added chuckle for those who decry the current “gridlock” in Washington as a symptom of national decay. As Mr. Unger shows, in the two years that followed Washington’s ostensible return to private life, the grand experiment of the American Republic was on the verge of collapse.
A weak national government had no power to pay off its war debts. The 13 new states were equally bankrupt; veterans of the War for Independence (a large number of whom had served through its entirety) had been given vouchers for future payment that almost immediately became the speculative fodder of such venal speculators as Abigail Adams, who bought them at a discount and then lobbied the government for full payment. Within a year of his retirement, secession movements were sparked — first in New England and thereafter throughout the counties on the western borders all the way to Georgia.
Washington was not alone during this time in realizing that the flawed Articles of Confederation were a recipe for inevitable collapse. He also knew better than to step out publicly to urge such a radical idea as drafting a brand new Constitution that would strengthen a national government. The public’s memory of the outrages of the British monarchy were still too raw. Equally frayed was the public’s impatience at the impotence and incompetence of both state and national governments to address the financial wreckage that remained after the war — then, as now, it was “the economy, stupid.”
With a little judicious prompting, old comrades such as James Madison, Henry Knox and “Light Horse Harry” Lee, began to publicly advocate a convention to “reform” the old Articles of Confederation with Washington being advanced as the presiding officer to guarantee no funny business. Even suspicious stir-plots like Patrick Henry fell for it.
That Washington would be in control of the agenda when the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, was never in question. Of the 55 delegates, 36 had served with him in the Continental Army, four had been his personal aides and seven others had served with him in the first Congress back in 1775.
Nevertheless, there was an immediate uproar of protest from those who feared a dilution of their state-based privileges, and the actual Constitution that emerged was an unsatisfactory compromise that took considerable lobbying to achieve ratification. Even then it would take almost immediate amendment (hence the Bill of Rights) and still produced a national government that was pretty much a structure in theory rather than reality.
Nowhere was the dubious nature of the Constitution more painfully apparent than in the presidency that Washington achieved by literal acclimation. The vice president at least had a stated function — president of the Senate and a vote in case of ties. But what was the president to preside over?
Wielding a dazzling display of delicate political consensus-building and brazen chutzpah, Washington maneuvered the still-infant Congress to assert his ascendency over foreign policy, executive appointments, (most importantly) government finances, the use of military power to enforce laws, and the power to make laws on his own by executive proclamation and orders.
How he accomplished all this in the face of political and public opposition even more fierce than what our more recent chief executives have faced is a real thriller of a tale that Mr. Unger has told with skill and authority. Read this book, then pay a visit to Mount Vernon.