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David A. Schwinghammer

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George Washington (book review)
By David A. Schwinghammer
Last edited: Sunday, May 29, 2011
Posted: Sunday, May 29, 2011



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Recent articles by
David A. Schwinghammer

• The God Particle
• Empire of Sin, book review
• SCIENCE AT THE EDGE, book review
• Obama, a Modern Caesar?
• Americans Need to Pull Together
• Voices of the French Revolution, book review
• Great American Scandals
           >> View all 145
Washington's two terms as president sound a whole lot like modern America.



The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Chernow’s one-book account of Washington’s life and career illustrates how little things have changed in the ensuing two hundred years plus. During the war years Congress was unable to supply Washington with enough soldiers or even enough food and supplies, mainly because it didn’t have the power to tax the individual Colonies. There was no chief executive other than the president of Congress, and he had little power. At times the soldiers were starving. Washington had to put down a mutiny among his officers even after the Battle of Yorktown. Without France the colonies never would have won the war.

After the war it became evident that the Articles of Confederation would not suffice. The colonies were bickering, there was a large war debt, and England still had forts on the frontier. Washington lent his support to the Constitutional Convention. Chernow implies that there never would have been a constitution without him.

Washington became the obvious choice for president, and he won with a unanimous vote. This is where we really see the similarities with modern politics. Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State. Hamilton supported a strong central government; Jefferson had a utopian dream of an agrarian society and feared the return of a monarchy. He was also suspicious of northern financial interests and manufacturing as well as the budding emancipation movement. The Hamilton faction became known as the Federalists and the Jeffersons were called the Democratic-Republicans. Madison supported Jefferson and Washington tended to side with Hamilton. Hamilton’s idea to assume state debt and the formation of a national bank was especially fractious. The Jefferson party saw this as unconstitutional. Hamilton emphasized Article I, Section 8, the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution that gave Congress the power to carry into law its enumerated responsibilities, and this carried the day as it would in the future. Modern day politicians continue to debate the applicability of the clause in reference to such legislation as the new health care law.

Early on Madison was one of Washington’s principal advisers. He even wrote an early version of Washington’s resignation speech (Washington only agreed to serve a few years). But he soon sided with the Jefferson party and began writing critical articles for the anti-federalist press. Jefferson could be either an adroit politician or a sneak, depending on your perspective. As Secretary of State he hired Philip Freneau as a translator, despite the fact that Freneau only knew one language. Freneau was editor of an anti-federalist paper similar to the modern Fox News. Another tabloid critic was Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache editor of the AURORA who went so far as to question Washington’s competence during the Revolutionary War and gave credit to Horatio Gates and Nathanael Greene. During Washington’s second term the animosity increased as the Jefferson crowd tended to be loyal to the French, even excusing The Terror, while the Federalists insisted on neutrality.

Beyond the similarities to modern America, we learn a few interesting tidbits. Chernow goes into extensive detail about what kind of slave master Washington was. He was a serious task master, demanding a full day’s work even from elderly and disabled slaves. Over four dozen of Washington’s slaves escaped. One of them was his personal chef, Hercules. But he also freed the slaves that he owned personally in his will (Martha’s slaves belonged to the Custis family). We also see Washington on his death bed worried that his man servant has been standing too long.

Others may be interested in Washington’s romantic life. Chernow seems to say that the Martha and George relationship was a marriage of convenience, but that she was a convivial woman that he truly loved. The Sally Fairfax relationship remains a quandary. Washington refers to their relationship as the happiest time of his life, but there was no evidence the relationship went any further. Later in life he had another relationship with a married woman, Elizabeth Willing Powell, but once again there’s no conclusive evidence that this went any further than friendship, although his letters to her seem to imply that there might have been more. We also learn a little about Washington’s family. Martha had two children, Jackie and Nelly, both of whom died young. Jackie had two children, Nelly and Washy whom George and Martha raised as their own.

Some might infer that Chernow had a political motive in writing this biography when so much has been written before. Some of the political infighting going on during Washington’s first term makes the Tea Party look like a bunch of boy scouts. And the discussion of the constitutionality of legislation sounds a whole lot like Antonin Scalia’s Originalism. But the fact that this was an issue already during Washington’s first term is fascinating.

Dave Schwinghammer's novel, SOLDIER'S GAP, is available at Amazon.com, new and used.

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Books by
David A. Schwinghammer



Soldier's Gap

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