“Render an opinion without footnotes.” That was the challenge put by Harvard lawyer Arthur Miller to a district judge sitting on an Ethics in America panel back in 1988. This year the popular British scholar Paul Johnson has done precisely that — not concerning a complex legal issue, but about the life and times of George Washington.
In the span of 120 pages, Johnson’s hand-sized book provides summary judgments about America’s first Commander in Chief. One won’t find in this work, part of the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series, a detailed presentation of primary materials. Indeed, even quotations are unreferenced. Instead, readers confront the author’s conclusions without the clutter (or depth) of supporting data that typically constitutes a biography.
Johnson begins his historical sketch by focusing attention on how Washington became, through inheritance and marriage, one of the largest landholders in the colonies. During those early years the young man’s tutorial education and training as a surveyor are highlighted — alongside military exploits in the Western territories. An “incident” within one of these expeditions, which was “credited” with starting the Seven Years War, is covered allusively in a few sentences.
Anecdotes and spare quotations generally provide such backing as is deemed necessary for observations about Washington’s character and intellectual outlook. The latter, Johnson notes, stressed the importance of tangible connections or “interests” that are needed to establish a person in life and to achieve success in public policy. Prominent among Washington’s own interests was the desire to develop the western lands he acquired through military service in His Majesty’s army. These acquisitions reinforced a muted sense of Manifest Destiny that was in visceral conflict with the restrictions on western migration that the Crown imposed on its colonial subjects at the end of the French-Indian conflict.
With respect to religion, Washington was a man of conventional practice who focused on the pragmatic benefits of religion. He exhibited no interest in theology and regularly employed the term “Providence” to refer to the deity that intervenes in human affairs (one infers) through the natural channels sanctioned by deistic philosophy. Such explicitly religious sentiments as he may have possessed were expressed within the confines of his Masonic associations.
Overall, Johnson’s Washington is a man of admirable qualities, awesome presence, and solid intelligence. His willingness to walk away from power is a trait illustrated by an exchange between Benjamin West and George III. When the artist reported the popular belief that Washington would return home after resigning his American military commission, the monarch responded, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Comments about President Washington’s desire to return to Mt. Vernon reinforce this portrait in humility — as do observations about his reluctance to exercise the potential powers of his office. (Washington vetoed, for example, only legislation he considered unconstitutional.)
This lack of political ambition contrasts with Washington’s personal lust for land. The Virginian’s desire to add acres to an already vast estate wasn’t so strong, however, that he would countenance the appearance of impropriety when Virginia sought to reward the general in spacious coin for his Revolutionary labors. Indeed, Johnson chides Washington for “moral vanity” — a “flaw” further illustrated by his wish to forego a presidential salary. Not surprisingly, this request was vetoed by officials less morally fastidious than the chief executive — and less affluent.
Johnson also scrutinizes Washington’s attitude toward slavery — or gives it as much attention as one would expect in a work where the Revolutionary War, Constitutional Convention, and two presidential terms are condensed into three extended essays. Washington’s close relationship with his “fellow” William Lee illustrates how pragmatism tempered idealism, but did not totally extinguish it (as was the case with the insolvent Jefferson) when it came to freeing his slaves. Of presidential leadership on the same issue, Johnson declares it the administration’s greatest failure. The author also offers glimpses into Washington’s thoughts about the tribes that occupied America prior to colonization — a view that envisioned two possible alternatives: assimilation or despair.
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