The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789

  • By Edward J. Larson
  • William Morrow
  • 384 pp.
  • By Rachael Guadagni
  • December 12, 2014

This masterful account of the future president’s “in-between” years brings him vividly to life.

The best part of a biography is the reader’s delightful disappearance into the life of the subject. If the tome is well written, this happens immediately and completely, and one experiences each thought and event with little awareness that they are but a distant spectator to the goings-on.

Edward J. Larson achieves just that here and he draws his readers into a period of Washington’s life that, while seldom showcased, directly influenced the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution and laid the groundwork for our nation’s first presidency.

Larson, a history professor at Pepperdine University and 1998 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, uses meticulous research and a plethora of personal correspondence to create an engaging summary of the post-Revolutionary War years and the ideological tugging that once again pulled the father of our country away from his beloved Mount Vernon and into a position of authority.

Biographies of Washington’s personal life, role in the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and certainly as the first president abound, but Larson narrows the focus to the handful of years in between his life as a warrior and a statesman, and fleshes out one of the more difficult historical personas to describe.

His narrative opens with a personal note told from a charmed perspective: “On a chilly spring morning in April 2014, I sat on Mount Vernon’s broad piazza watching the sun rise slowly over the Potomac River.”

The author’s choice to preface his novel with his own connection to Washington at the place the president loved most reveals the depth to which Larson has come to understand the man and the workings of his mind.

The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789 navigates the twists and turns of America’s early political climate via Washington’s perspective and contends that his influence wasn’t simply helpful, but crucial to the creation of the American republic.

Washington’s story begins with his retirement from the army in 1783, and the eloquence that came to define him is immediately evident. Larson is adept at turning “Washington” into a real person and conveying the emotion bubbling beneath his stoicism; it is difficult to read his resignation speech in the Maryland State House without tearing-up right along with those in attendance.

Life after the Revolutionary War settled on Washington in a way that made him ideologically unsettled and created serious doubts in his mind about the certainty of a united nation.

Unrest among the Federalists and anti-Federalists had the former general questioning whether “Thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole.” This thought is what flushed Washington out of a pleasant retirement and into the responsibility that always seemed to be waiting for him.

Washington fretted over whether or not to attend the Constitutional Convention that would — hopefully — bring opposing sides together, and Larson illustrates his mix of conviction, self-aggrandizement, and genuine concern for the future with a poetic nod to Shakespeare.

“Washington played Hamlet during late 1786 and early 1787 as he agonized over whether to attend the Convention. The part came naturally to him.” And capturing that drama comes naturally to Larson, who brings to life the passion, determination, and subtlety at the heart of the future president’s character.

Procedural aspects of the convention and subsequent ratification are detailed as Larson works his way through delegate debate and discourse; the different directions the process could have taken seem even more stark and amazing amid Larson’s matter-of-fact storytelling.

He writes: “Rufus King of Massachusetts objected that recording the votes of the individual members might hinder them from changing their opinions and North Carolina’s Richard Dobbs Spaight urged that any member be allowed to request that the Convention revisit matters previously decided. These variations from normal parliamentary procedure allowed delegates to play with new ideas and take tentative positions. Of even greater import, Pierce Butler of South Carolina moved that the Convention keep its proceedings secret…these added rules allowed the Convention to build internal consensus without outside interference.”

Wow. Who in the 24-hour-news-cycle, demand-for-transparency world of 2014 can read that without a gasp? And how deliciously paradoxical that the argument for said transparency is predicated on the “founding principles” of “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Larson’s understanding of Washington’s motives and mental and emotional processes allows him to engage the man almost as a friend, a colleague. The book flows with Washington’s analysis and internalization of each constitutional concept and component of American liberty and leadership.

And while Larson’s ardent admiration for Washington is evident, his portrayal of the future president is honest and comprehensive. The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789 is a brilliant snapshot of six years in the life of a man and a country, and well worth the read.

Rachael Guadagni is a writer based in Lexington, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Kentucky Monthly, Maryland Life, Her Mind, and other publications.

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