Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Book Review: 'Washington's End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle' by Jonathan Horn

George Washington tried mightily to just fade away. He wanted out of politics, public office and the military. But it was not to be, as Jonathan Horn relates in Washington’s End. In his mid sixties, Washington wanted nothing more than to farm the land and lease property he did not need. To be with his wife and extended family. And relax. It had been not just a momentous but an unrelenting run for him, starting with the Declaration of Independence, through the Revolutionary War, the constitutional battles and then the presidency. Twice. And every step of the way, he had to make it up as he went, because no one had come before him. There had never been an American military, electorate, national government, or leader.

The biggest impression the book leaves is Washington’s tense fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. He worded his thoughts carefully, listened more than he spoke, and even went back through all his papers to edit out the colorful, the superfluous and the opinionated so that he would not trap others – or the country – into some unseemly situation after he was gone. Some of his edits are ludicrously oversensitive, distorting history rather than documenting it.

His favorite person in the world, the Marquis de Lafayette, was finally released from prison in Austria (an incredible story in itself), and wanted to come to the USA to visit his oldest and best friend. Lafayette was a genuine American Revolutionary War hero. Washington was even raising his grandson, Georges Washington Lafayette. But there was potential war with France in the offing, and Washington could not possibly be seen entertaining a Frenchman under those circumstances. That’s how sensitive he was. He would never see Lafayette again, but that was the price of putting America first. Such attitudes in today’s administration is inconceivable.

Washington was THE national hero. For 20 years he never had dinner alone with his wife Martha. There were always visitors, usually total strangers, come to pay their respects, thank him and see his estate at Mount Vernon. They were always received warmly, and wined and dined. This provided more opportunities to screw up, and Washington seemed to have walked on eggshells for the rest of his life.

He hated political parties and bemoaned the fact that people who used to work together (and needed to work together) no longer even tipped their hats (in fact crossed the street to avoid it) because they were in different political parties. America had become the land of hate. Already. Washington liked to speak from and for America, and not from or for some state, region or special interest. And he wished everyone would follow his example.

But the only thing they followed him for was to drag him back into service. “Only Washington can save the country” was a familiar call in the late 1790s, as the party system (predictably) undermined everything the founders sought to erect. They wanted him to run for a third term, especially after John Adams proved to be unsatisfactory as his successor. Meanwhile, Adams felt the pressure of always being compared to George Washington, and unflatteringly. Eventually, Adams convinced Washington to come out of retirement to raise and lead a new American military into what looked to be war with France. (At least Adams recognized that with no military experience, he was not going to be a competent commander in chief, and sought out the ideal candidate for it. No one since has voluntarily given up power like Adams did.)

Washington never wanted an American army. It was expensive and pointless, as the USA was isolated from potential enemies by oceans which provided plenty of notice of an attack. The country was not set up for a military establishment. It couldn’t even get uniforms made – not even just one for George Washington. There wasn’t enough gold thread or tailors who knew how to embroider with it. And no military bases to house and train the men. When war was avoided, Adams was only too glad to abandon the whole project. Let the states foot the bills for militias if they were so hot on the military. That’s what they had the Second Amendment for. Any resemblance to the USA today is purely coincidental.

The book is short. (Washington didn’t live to see out the decade after he retired.) But it is annoying. For some reason, every individual word Horn picks out of the archives is significant to him and merits quotation marks. So sentences become rocky rollercoasters, as ordinary words like “formal” or “received” or “high” or “wet” make readers wonder what they’re missing. The answer is they aren’t missing anything, but it makes the book read like a Zagat restaurant review, where nearly every word comes from a customer comment. It might be cute in a paragraph, but it is painful in a book.

The human story still comes through, but it is more difficult than it needs to be.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.