The Forgotten Founder


Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, by Richard Brookhiser, New York: The Free Press, 215 pages, $25.00

George Washington is the neglected founder. He is either debunked at the hands of revisionist sophisticates, or sentimentalized through what might be called the eternal return of cherry-tree iconography. Richard Brookhiser has produced a valuable and, I predict, enduring contribution to the literature on Washington that turns a deserved cold hand to the debunkers while keeping sentimentalism to a minimum. Along the way, Brookhiser's "rediscovery" of Washington shines a refracting light on the afflictions of our historical outlook today, and supplies the material for useful reflection on what is possible from public figures.

Of the two hazards to Washington's reputation, sentimentalism is probably the worse foe. Brookhiser rightly notes that "The humanizers have done more damage to Washington than the debunkers." Certainly Parson Weems's fable of the cherry tree is a bit of noisome bunk that deserves the contempt of the debunkers. But our generation's recoil from sentimentalism and filial piety has left Washington "in our textbooks and in our wallets, but not our hearts." This condition has made Brookhiser's task–"a moral biography in the tradition of Plutarch," as he describes it–very tricky indeed. Brookhiser wants to reestablish Washington's reputation as more than just a subject of antiquarian curiosity. To attempt such a "moral biography" in an age that prefers Fawn Brodie to Plutarch requires that the author reacquaint readers with the possibility that the moral horizon of Washington's time is plausible in our own.

This would seem an especially tough sell to today's so-called liberals, who dismiss the American Founding as irrelevant to modern politics. But the more serious objections to Brookhiser's Washington project may come from the contemporary champions of classical liberalism (or at least its "public choice" variant), who generalize from the ample evidence in modern politics that all ambition can be reduced to calculations of self-interest. Washington appears as either an insincere or simply incredible figure. "The pursuit of power with the capacity and in the desire to use it worthily is among the noblest of human occupations," Winston Churchill wrote in his biography of Marlborough. Today power is so distrusted–with all good reason–that it has become difficult even for the friends of liberty to imagine that a noble and self-limiting ambition for power is even possible. Hence the incredulity over Washington.

Washington was often compared in his day with Cato the Younger, of whom Plutarch had written that "every class of men in Utica could clearly see, with sorrow and admiration, how entirely free was everything that he was doing from any secret motives or any mixture of self-regard." Brookhiser's account is entirely harmonious with this seemingly archaic view. "Washington was worthy of honor," Brookhiser concludes, "because the last thing he had done with power was to resign it….Washington's last service to his country was to stop serving." No term limits were necessary in those days. Washington's self-limiting example sufficed until the coming of the Leviathan state during the New Deal erased not only Washington's example but his principles as well.

Brookhiser's account makes clear, however, that neither Washington nor his 18th-century admirers were oblivious to interest, nor did they seek to draw a veil over interest through classical heroic imagery. Washington himself wrote that "it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it." But for Washington, as for the other Founders, while interest must always be reckoned as a motive force that would tend toward the dissolution of republican government, it was also true that educated men have an interest in the noble possibilities that republican government has to offer, namely, the independence and individual flourishing that democratic self-government alone makes possible.

That is why the constitutional arrangements of our government were crafted to channel self-interest to noble ends. This is an aspect of the thought of the Founders that is badly underappreciated, even by the modern-day friends of the Founding. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist: "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of mistrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form." Washington, as Brookhiser's rediscovery makes clear, was the highest exemplar of those republican qualities.

Washington might be dismissed as being the Colin Powell of his day–widely respected for his command of a fortuitous military venture and for the indeterminacy or derivative nature of his political views. On the surface, one can point to a mixed military record. He lost more battles than he won. Brookhiser does a singular service in reviving Washington's credentials as a no-nonsense strategist and commander. The revolutionary army had of necessity to fight a defensive war against the superior forces of the British, anticipating Lord Kitchener's dictum that "One cannot wage war as one ought, but only as one can." But Washington was able to conceive the war in such as way as to change the strategic equation. He did this by confining the British for most of the war to the northeastern theater, between New York and Philadelphia, alternately hitting the British and retiring beyond their reach. "But by fighting an aggressive defense," Brookhiser notes, "he raised the cost of victory for the British to an unacceptable level," and "destroyed whatever strategy the British possessed."

The accounts given by his contemporaries of his manner of command and his strategic sense in battle reminds one of similar accounts of great commanders such as Marlborough or Napoleon. Alexander Hamilton noted that "he directed the whole with the skill of a master craftsman." This and countless other assessments track closely with Churchill's descriptions of his great ancestor, Marlborough, whose presence on the battlefield "diffused a harmony all around him."

Off the battlefield, in the arena of political thought, Washington has always taken a back seat to Jefferson, Madison, and even Hamilton (not to mention the anti-Federalist writers such as Patrick Henry and George Mason). Brookhiser makes clear that this is an unwarranted slight. Brookhiser observes: "Washington's relation to ideas has been underestimated by almost everyone who wrote of him or knew him, and modern higher education has encouraged this neglect….Neither Washington's ideas, nor his belief that right ideas were a necessary attainment of public men, have survived in their original form." Washington wrote no political broadsides or pamphlets like Common Sense or The Federalist. His political thoughts were set down mostly in letters, and as Brookhiser notes, "Appreciating Washington's spoken and written words takes time and effort."

Brookhiser comes close to repeating the common mistake of supposing that Washington and the other revolutionaries were fighting merely for their "rights as an Englishman," rather than for universal natural rights. But Brookhiser notes quickly that Washington quickly came to conceive of his rights in universal terms. Washington's most ringing expression of this view came in his "Circular to the States," written on the eve of his resignation from command of the army following the conclusion of the treaty of peace with Britain: "The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but in an Epocha [sic] when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period; the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent; the Treasures of knowledge, acquired through a long succession of years, by the labours of Philosophers, Sages, and Legislatures, are laid open for our use…." Here is a confident expression of Enlightenment reason at its highest. But, Washington was quick to warn his fellow citizens that if the nation "should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely [sic] their own"–a recognition that self-government allows no excuses.

Washington also penned one of the best formulations of the idea that is most prominently associated with Jefferson: religious freedom (as opposed to mere toleration). In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Washington again anchors the idea on the firm ground of natural right: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no faction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." (Brookhiser's book does not contain these passages in their entirety; readers who wish to delve into the fullness of Washington's prose should obtain the Liberty Fund edition of Washington's letters and papers, edited by W.B. Allen.)

Washington's greatest service, in the end, was his tenure as the first president. With more than just an eye toward the precedents he would set as the first occupant of the executive office, Washington was aware that, as he wrote a friend, "We now have a National character to establish." Hence his goal in office was, according to Brookhiser, "to develop an etiquette appropriate to the republican model of government." Washington experienced nearly all of the tensions that we witness today between the legislative and executive branches of government, and had Washington acted differently then, circumstances might be very different today–probably for the worse.

Above all, Brookhiser's book makes a clear case that the goal of Washington's statecraft was to establish that government by the consent of the governed meant that the reasonable decisions of the majority–decisions that did not trample an individual's natural rights–could not be negated by a willful minority. "If a self-governing people decided legitimately to do a thing," Brookhiser summarizes the issue, "could some people then prevent it from being done?"

The issue presented itself in acute form in the Whiskey Rebellion on the frontier. Washington felt some sympathy with the burdens the whiskey tax imposed on frontiersmen, but he also felt the authority of the republic was in jeopardy if its laws could be willfully flouted. Washington wrote that "if the laws are to be so trampled upon with impunity," and "a minority…is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put at one stroke to republican government." Washington readied a strong show of federal force, but deployed it with restraint, with the Whiskey rebels deciding among themselves to back down from their radical threats.

If Brookhiser avoids the sentimentalism of past encomiums, he nonetheless produces a new sentimentalism borne of today's cultural conservative fixation with fatherhood and family values. "The contemporary failure of fatherhood is perhaps the subtlest barrier to our understanding of Washington, the greatest source of the distance between us and him," Brookhiser writes in the introduction. Hence the chapter on Washington and fatherhood is written too much as a mirror to our own time rather than Washington's. "We are not sure what the fathers of families do," Brookhiser laments, "much less fathers of countries." The childless Washington, Brookhiser concludes, settled on his countrymen as his substitute children. This is taking the metaphor of fatherhood–which alludes to the most fundamental act of politics (founding)–too far. It is doubtless true that in the age of liberal democracy (the "end of history"), the idea of political founding seems remote, but it is a stretch to lump the pathologies of the contemporary family together with the desuetude of the idea of founding. Not to mention that Brookhiser seems to assume that no one in modern America has a decent father–quite a stretch. Conservatives at times get so wrapped up in their rhetoric that they forget that most Americans, and certainly most Americans likely to read this book, do in fact have perfectly decent fathers. And that we may have strong fathers without having 18th-century ones.

This chapter is the only part of the book that seems incongruous, though even here one must assent to Brookhiser's summary judgment that "Washington was the most important man in America, whether he was onstage or off, for twenty-four years; for seventeen of those years, he was front and center. It is a record unmatched in our history, scarcely matched in the histories of modern democracies."

Finally, Brookhiser provides a nice account of the blend of Washington's character, showing us his moral, dramatic, religious, and intellectual influences. He also ably brings out Washington's nasty temper, which sounds as though it could have matched the oft-described "volcanic" temper of the current occupant of the White House. In this passage the reader is again reminded of Churchill's description of the various aspects of Marlborough's character and aims, of which Churchill wrote that "No one of these purposes could be removed without impairing the others, and part of his genius lay in their almost constant harmony." Likewise, Brookhiser notes of Washington's many traits that "Each aspect was necessary, however. Without his physique and the threat of his temper, he would have been inconsiderable; without his ideas, he might have been directionless. If he had lacked any of the three or possessed any to a lesser degree, he could not have been the father of his country."

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward (hayward487@aol.com) is research and editorial director for the Pacific Research Institute.