You have George Washington all wrong: Why he was more like Reagan or Clinton than you think

Ed Larson tells Salon how Washington's influence on the Constitution is misunderstood — and greater than you think

Published February 23, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

In a time when the foundational institutions of the U.S. government seem more broken than they've been in more than 100 years, Americans can be forgiven if they find themselves irresistibly drawn to histories of the founding era, when the mighty democratic republic we know today was little more than a dream. Yet for all the veneration and deification of the men and women who won the Revolutionary War and drafted the U.S. Constitution, most Americans are blinded by the perspective of hindsight, and often forget just how much a product of good fortune and luck their country really is. From the perspective of someone living during the chaotic years between the end of the war and the ratification of the Constitution, nothing felt guaranteed.

That topsy-turvy period of American history — and the steady hands that guided the nascent republic to relative stability — is the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ed Larson's latest book, "The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789," which argues in part that the future first president had much more to do with the drafting and ratification of America's governing document than is generally understood. Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Larson about his book, the years when the dream of republican self-government seemed so in doubt, and why Washington was no less important to the country off the battlefield than he was while commanding American rebels. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

What made you want to take a deeper dive into Washington's actions during this pivotal but somewhat forgotten moment in U.S. history?

As an author and a historian, I tend to tackle projects that have been little researched and written about. Others like to take established topics and just write 'em up better; I tend to take somewhat obscure topics. You think, well, how could you do that with George Washington? Nobody has more books written about him! But what I thought when I got into this project, having taught this period of American history for years as a college professor, is that Washington sort of disappears in those five years between when he steps down as commander-in-chief of American forces during the Revolutionary War and when he comes back as president.

Those are truly critical years in American history. When we cover them in the textbooks or in class, it's a period when America is looking at charting its future. The states are virtually each independent; there are 13 sovereign states each pulling their own way, breaking apart the country; each have their own self-interest, their own leaders. Some are effectively controlled by the creditors— there's the Debtors' Insurrection in Massachusetts, there's the free-printing of paper money in states like Rhode Island and Georgia that led to hyperinflation and loss of property rights. America is losing control of its frontier because it doesn't have an effective national union at all that can raise taxes or maintain an army.

The British have never evacuated the forts on the frontier that they promised to in the Treaty of Independence; Spain is conspiring with settlers to move into the Southwest; Britain is moving back up into the Northwest; Native Americans are gradually encroaching in some areas like Georgia and they're certainly militant in keeping the settlers out in the Ohio country. Interstate commerce is limited because every state can set up its own tariffs and its own money system, so trade is tough from one state to another because each is trying to expand at the expense of its neighbor.

And what is Washington doing at this time?

Washington is living through this period and in the regular textbook stories he's off there farming in Virginia, trying to restore his plantation to profitability. I was just wondering, well, what's he doing? Here he was, the most famous person in America, a beloved leader. He'd fought for nine years without pay or without leave, leading the Revolution; he'd led men to their deaths fighting for this cause that he deeply believed in. Is he just sitting around and watching it all fall apart and collapse around him? What was he doing to reform the national government or create a national government or some sort of federal system?

I began reading all these documents and found out that there was a very rich story there that virtually gets untold — it's sort of mentioned in some of the biographies but not with this depth — and pulling this apart and trying to understand Washington's role at the Constitutional Convention during the first federal election and the debates over ratification of the Constitution. I was really trying to flesh out Washington's role as the founder during this in-between period, often called the Confederation period in American history.

How did Washington respond during the extremely uncertain time when the country was governed by the Articles of Confederation? At that time the political situation was maybe not quite apocalyptic — but it was pretty dysfunctional. 

Washington would have actually called it apocalyptic. He used terms exactly like that in his letters as he saw these things happening. You know, there was no continental or broad-based republic in the world and there never had been at that time. There were some small city-states but the rest of the world was governed, by large, by monarchies, aristocracies, theocracies, military dictatorships, and they were all waiting for America to fail. The United States was a novel experience in government of the people, a republican form of government, and the European leaders had said that won't work.

You can read Washington's letters during this period and they get increasingly stark. He's writing to friends in France who had served during the Revolution, people like Lafayette and Rochambeau. He was also writing to other like-minded people in America like John Jay and Henry Knox, and he would write, who but a Tory would have believed what's happening to us? He always had hoped that America would be a model for the world, to lead it towards more democratic governments. He said, who would've believed that we're becoming the laughingstock of Europe as we're falling apart?

That just pained him greatly because he had fought for this, he had led men to their deaths for this; he believed that it would work — he was a child of the Enlightenment in that sense — and he despaired of what was happening to his country and dreaded that if the republican experience were discredited here it would be discredited for the ages.

There's an image of Washington as not really being a politician, but existing almost as if he were on some kind of higher plane. But your book argues that he was actually a rather shrewd political actor. Can you give me a sense of how he showed his political acumen?

That's a very good observation and I totally agree that the general impression of Washington is that he's almost a wax figure. He's up there on Mount Rushmore, we see that terrible picture of him on the $1 bill ... and he looks very foreboding and aloof. But he really wasn't that way.

He actually was a very skilled retail politician of the Ronald Reagan or the Bill Clinton type. He liked people; he was a great storyteller; people liked him. He was a great mentor of individuals, he listened to other people, and he learned how to pull their ideas together towards what he viewed as the common good.

Remember, he'd been a politician before. He'd been elected to the state legislature and then, in a highly contested decision, he was picked to be one of Virginia's delegates to the first and then the second Continental Congress. People really wanted that job. You would only go to somebody who other politicians in the Virginia House of Burgesses liked and trusted because it was a big job, and Washington got it. We didn't have an effective military when Washington took over and it wasn't like he was automatically taking over a hierarchy. He created that hierarchy.

Was he more a politician or a military leader?

What he was was a political general. He had to negotiate with 13 state militias and keep them and all their governors in line; he had to negotiate with the French to get them to fight with us. I think of him as an Eisenhower who, during the war in Europe, had to get people like Churchill and Montgomery and De Gaulle and Gen. Patton to all be on the same page; Washington had to operate like that. He had those experiences, so when he retired after the Revolution and went back to his farm he still had those traits.

When he became concerned about the future of the country, he began writing letters. Everybody already knew him and, certainly, they knew his name, but most of these leaders around the country actually knew him personally because he'd served in the Continental Congress. As a general, he'd fought battles in Massachusetts and Connecticut and New Jersey and New York and Pennsylvania and Virginia, so he'd been in all those states and when he was stationed there he'd get to know the governors and political leaders. He started writing them and they started writing him about their concerns about what was happening — or not happening — with the progress of the country.

Many of them would come and visit him at Mount Vernon; he would often have, on average, between 10 and 20 people staying with him. He once wrote a letter, late in the 1790s, where he said, if nobody pops up in the next two hours, my wife and I will have something we haven't had in 20 years — a dinner home alone in Mount Vernon. He would talk with these people; he loved to go to parties; he was a hunter; he was a fisherman. He would be involved with other people and those involvements often were with other political leaders as they were lamenting the state of the country and plotting about how to solve those problems with a new constitution.

We tend to imagine his presence during the Constitutional Convention as mainly ceremonial, as someone who brought to the project legitimacy and moral authority. But did his actions during that crucial time extend beyond mere appearances?

He certainly was a figure of legitimacy and moral authority. His presence and Ben Franklin's presence — the two most famous Americans— gave credibility to this otherwise unofficial meeting. It had sort of called itself and then the Confederation Congress reluctantly endorsed it, but it was sort of meeting on its own account with delegates named by the states. Washington was elected as president, so he sat up front for most of it but he always voted.

He was a voting delegate; he never gave up his right to vote and his vote was often crucial in Virginia because it was a split delegation with different ideas. It was a convention that met in secret, so the only record we have is Madison's notes and the official records of votes — that's it, that's all we have. Washington doesn't speak much because a presiding officer, officially, doesn't speak. What we do know from reading diaries and letters and piecing the pieces together is that he was constantly dining with the other delegates, meeting with them at parties, talking to them, having private meetings with them.

What happened during those meetings?

At those meetings, he was clearly brokering compromises because he wanted something to succeed. While most people were committed to some sort of a stronger central government — the ones that weren't didn't show up — they all had somewhat different ideas. He had a few fixed principles: The central government would have the power to tax, the power to have its own military, the power over interstate commerce. But he wasn't fixed on the details of how the Senate and the House would be structured and what the judiciary would look like so he could work with the other members to try to broker a compromise that would pass.

We can tell by piecing together the times and places of those meetings and who spoke that he had so much respect that people knew where he stood from his voting and prior comments and they were influenced by his position. He was, along with Ben Franklin, the one truly national figure. We can see his influence in the sense that before he went to the Convention he had written to a few people he trusted — John Jay, Henry Knox, a few others — to ask what they thought was essential in a new government. He then compiled all the notes he got back from them into his own handwritten draft and the final document is pretty much similar to that handwritten draft that he had before.

How important was Washington to the period just after the Convention, when the struggle was over whether enough states would ratify the Constitution? How did he use his influence to get that done?

There it's even clearer how central he truly was to the ratification process. First, he was writing letters. From the very moment he left Philadelphia, he was writing letters to key people around the country, pushing for them to support ratification. It had to take nine states to ratify, out of 13, and they had to be done in popular conventions so he was writing letters and pleading with others to write essays for the newspapers. When good articles would come out, he would distribute them and encourage local publications to run them.

We know, actively, what he was doing to push ratification around the country and we do have a good record of what happened at many of these state ratifying conventions. We also have the newspaper articles written at the time, and in both cases so many delegates say that they're voting for this because of Washington. They figured he'd be the first president, they trusted him, that it was credible because Washington was behind the Constitution and that that gave them the confidence to adopt a stronger central government despite all the problems they'd had with England having a stronger central government.

We can also see, in those campaigns for ratification and in the articles in the newspaper, constant references to, if Washington is for this, how can it be bad for us? How can we not trust the person who led our country? Washington's name just features so prominently in the ratification debate and we have so many people saying, I wouldn't have voted for this but for Washington, that we can see how central his role was. They say "guilt by association," well, this is the opposite: credit by association. They had trusted him during the Revolution with power and now they were going to trust him again.

How should we understand Washington's role? Should we see him as a skilled and steady steward during a tumultuous era? Or should we give him more credit as someone who had a vision, someone who did more than provide stability and encourage cohesion?

If you look at the textbooks, they often describe James Madison as the architect of the Constitution. Of course, at this time Madison was working very closely with Washington and, in fact, much of the time before the Convention he was actually staying with Washington at Mount Vernon. If Madison is the architect of the Constitution, I'd say that George Washington was the general contractor. If you've ever built a house or put on an addition, you know that the architect has a certain effect but it's ultimately the general contractor who gets things done.

Washington plays that role; he brokers the deals, brokers the compromises, maintains his vision to have a government of the people, he has core principles. He fears that, without the Constitution, individual liberty and private property would be lost, perhaps even independence would be lost, and that prosperity would not be gained. What he wanted was a country that would protect individual liberty, private property, control interstate congress for a national market economy, open the West— he was committed to opening the frontier and being able to push out the British and push back the Native Americans. These were his core values and goals and we see that all of those things happened. That's what he set out to do, that's what the Constitution enabled him to do, and that is what he pushed to do as president.

So he was a combination, then.

He was a revolutionary leader — this was a type of government that had never been set up before — but one who looked back to tradition and established ways. He certainly was steady, but in a time when you have a wildly rocking boat, to get to shore at all is an amazing accomplishment. He once wrote during the time of ratification about how tragic it would be to see the ship founder when we were so close to shore. He managed, with a steady hand but also with a  vision and a willingness to compromise, to get the ship to shore.

Nobody then would have thought that the Constitution would last 225 years, and yet it has, and I think that's in part due to Washington's role in both designing the government, getting it adopted, and implementing it by being the first president.

Do you think he would have cared that his role in this period of our history has not been fully appreciated?

Washington cared deeply about his legacy. When he was young, he would talk about wanting to be famous and wanting to make a difference; that mattered more to him than making money or having power. Now, he did have power and he did make money but it was that sense of purpose that really animated him. He got more than his share of glory at the Revolution and he understood that he had become a larger-than-life figure. I don't think he needed or wanted anything more beyond that.

He wanted to leave a legacy; he would know about his role during this in-between period and I don't think he'd care that much because, after all, he is on the $1 bill. He is regarded as the founder of his country, founder among the other founders, and I think that would be more than enough for him. He wasn't a megalomaniac in any way. He did care about his legacy but for him, that legacy mostly was in a viable, successful, functioning republican government. He might despair now about the partisanship; he certainly hated partisanship and talked about it often. He would certainly have those concerns, but I don't think he would be after any more glory than he already has.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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