Thursday, March 18, 2021

AR-SP08 David O. Stewart: George Washington

Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution. I am joined today by author David O Stewart. Mr. Stewart is an attorney who worked at the US Supreme Court and later argued before the justices in various cases he also argued the Nixon impeachment case before the US Senate. No, not that Nixon. Federal Judge Walter Nixon was impeached in 1989.

Mr. Stewart is also a prolific author.  He’s written a number of historical fiction novels.  He's also written nonfiction about the Constitutional Convention, about Vice President Andrew Johnson's impeachment, about Vice President Aaron Burr’s Treason trial, and about the politics of James Madison.

Mr. Stewart was kind enough to join me to discuss his most recent book: George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father.  His book covers Washington the politician, as he progresses from a young militia officer, though years as a colonial legislator, to the Continental Congress, as Commander of the Continental Army, and finally as the President of the United States.

I spoke with Mr. Stewart via a remote call. 


Michael J. Troy (MJT) David Stewart, welcome to the American Revolution Podcast.

David O. Stewart (DOS): Well, thanks so much for having me.

MJT: We're here to talk about your new book, George Washington: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father, which came out just a couple of weeks ago if I'm correct, right?

DOS: Indeed, just in time for Washington's Birthday. 

MJT: I've got to say, there's probably maybe 1000 biographies about George Washington. What makes your standout?

DOS: Putting aside overall excellence, I do have a theme, which is to focus on his political life. I think it's been neglected, that he really was an extraordinarily effective political leader. And really, part of his magic was that people didn't think of him as a politician and still don't, when in fact, that's exactly what he was, and an extraordinarily successful one. So I wanted to unpack that and try to understand how he did it, and how he taught himself to do it. Because when I looked at his life, it turned out, he didn't start out as a gifted politician. He had to learn it.

MJT: I guess politics was really in Washington's tradition. I mean, his grandfather was in the House of Burgesses. His father was an elected Sheriff and his brother Lawrence was also in the Burgesses, right?

DOS: Yeah, you're exactly right. And his great-grandfather had been in the House of Burgesses and his other brother, Augustine also was in the House of Burgesses.  But none of them was particularly prominent, although Lawrence might well have been had he lived.  He died prematurely. He was a very ambitious young man and successful.  But, he had contracted tuberculosis and died in his early 30s.

MJT: As was common with a lot of politicians in the colonies. They were all very active in the state militia as well. Right?

DOS: Lawrence was. Virginia had very little militia tradition. And Lawrence had been engaged in actually a foreign expedition to South America to fight the Spanish. And George really imbibed that. Lawrence was 14 years older. He was a half-brother, sort of also half-father, because George's father dies when he's 11. [Lawrence] shows up, you know, with a uniform and a sword and George wanted to be a soldier right from that minute on.  His brother, as long as he lived, helped him in every way he could. 

MJT: George, I guess, got his start, well, he wanted to join the Navy. I think his mother wouldn't let him. Is that true?

Author: David Stewart
DOS: It's not clear he wanted to join. Lawrence was acting a surrogate father at the time. He and another surrogate father, Colonel William Fairfax, who was a next door neighbor.  The Fairfaxes were the richest people in Virginia, and they were good neighbors to have. They cooked up the scheme. Lawrence was a son in law of Colonel Fairfax. He had married at Fairfax.  The Washingtons all liked to marry well.  They cooked up this scheme to enlist George as a midshipman. 

They did not reckon on his mom, Mary Washington was a single mother at this point. I think everybody could see that George was a talented young man. He had the potential to be something. She didn't want to see him die at sea, which was not an uncommon outcome. You know, you could sort of see maybe some political skills of George coming from his mother. She just sort of slow rolled these two guys, who were very powerful men in their own right, much more powerful than she was.  She just kept dragging her feet and dragging her feet and they finally gave up, which was probably to George's advantage. 

MJT: Well, it seemed to work out well for him in the end.

DOS: Yeah, well, right. Things did turn out. But the British military establishment was built on patronage and rich patrons, and George didn't have any. 

MJT: You mentioned Lord Fairfax. The Fairfaxes were obviously a huge influence on George and his family generally. I guess they were the wealthiest family in Northern Virginia. And Lord Fairfax, I believe, was actually even a peer in Britain. And they seem to take  an interest in the Washingtons.  Obviously, as you mentioned, Lawrence married Lord Fairfax's daughter, Anne. And I believe George was good friends with Lord Fairfax's son, George William.

DOS: Yes, that's right. There was a pretty big age difference of seven years, but they became fast friends for really their whole lives. George's friendships are hard to trace, but I might well call George William Fairfax, his best friend.

MJT: When George first started out in a career, George Washington, he worked as a surveyor and I believe Lord Fairfax assisted him with that, and he ended up going out on some survey missions with George William Fairfax.

DOS: Yes, George Washington really had to go to work. His mother was a single mom with five kids and not enough assets to really live that well. His education was cut short. He never got to go to England the way his two older brothers had to get it really fine education. He went to work as a surveyor at 16 really self-taught.  But surveying, it turns out, wasn't all that precise an activity back then. There was a certain amount of shading and scamming, that went on in land deals. And the Fairfaxes, of course, since they owned so much of Northern Virginia, basically they own as much land as the state of New Hampshire occupies. They had plenty of need for surveyors, because they were selling their land or leasing it as best they could. So they could really give him a tremendous head start. And they did.

MJT: It seems like Washington spent a lot of his early years on the western frontier, both as a surveyor and later as a militia officer. He very conspicuously did not adopt, I guess what we call it frontiersman persona. He never took up drinking or hard language. He very much emulated the elite habits of the Fairfaxes and I guess that was one of his first very deliberate steps toward political advancement.

DOS: Yes, and I credit a lot of that, as you say to the Fairfaxes, but also to Lawrence, his older brother, who was his role model through his teens. And, you know, he was a very ambitious boy, and young man, and being a yahoo in buckskins was not the road to greatness, if you really wanted to be a member of the elite. He had trouble getting there because she didn't really have the assets for it. But that absolutely was his goal.

MJT: Yeah, his father was reasonably wealthy. And of course, most of his property got divided up among his sons with I guess, Lawrence and Austin, getting the lion's share of it. Washington, after a few years in serving, saw, I guess, militia or a commission in the officer corps of the Virginia army as a place for advancement, right?

DOS: Yes, everyone could see that the war with France was coming, which we call the French and Indian War. And he ended up very well placed. I kind of credit Colonel Fairfax for getting him well placed. He went on an expedition for the Royal Governor out in the west to present a demand to the French. It was really a diplomatic mission, which is amazing that a 21 year old was sent to do this. And he acquitted himself well. It gave him a terrific head start, beginning as a military officer and within a year, despite, frankly, not much success, he was the senior military officer in the colony. He was Colonel of the Virginia regiment.

MJT: He was relatively active in the early part of the French and Indian War. He of course, famously served under General Braddock, although that campaign did not go as well as hoped But he acquitted himself well there. Despite the loss overall, he came out of it with the respect of his fellow officers, I think, at least the ones who survived.

DOS: He was crazy brave and crazy lucky. The Braddock Battle of the Monongahela was a slaughter.  [Washington was] the tallest man on the battlefield, [and] on a horse.  He couldn't have been more conspicuous and didn't have a scratch on him. He came away from that with a better reputation than he had earned or deserved. I shouldn't say "earned." I mean, he was courageous beyond imagination. 

And then he was given command out in the woods, on the frontier to fight the Indians and the French. And that just turned out so badly for him. Virginia soldiers just were not the equal of Indian fighters. They just made too much noise and they didn't know the woods well enough. And I don't think he ever had a good day for three years out there. It was just always bad news. More settlers have been slaughtered and more were heading east to get out of the frontier. His soldiers deserted in droves, because the service was so dangerous and unpleasant. 

He ended up so unhappy that he really fouled his own nest and tried to jump the chain of command in ways that military people don't forgive.  He was disrespectful to his superiors, which nobody forgives. At the end of four years, he could tell he was not going to have a military career as things were constituted. And he walked away from it.

MJT: He served under General Forbes during the Forbes campaign. And the impression I got was he was really unhappy with General Forbes' strategy, because, well, he said it was mostly because it was gonna be so hard getting over the mountains, but I think a bigger part of it for him was they were building a road that was going to help Pennsylvania lay better claim to what became western Pennsylvania rather than allowing that land to become part of Virginia.

DOS: Yeah, it was political in part. Braddock had built a road basically through Virginia to attack what is now Pittsburgh - it was then mostly called the forks of the Ohio or then the French Fort Duquesne. Maybe partly [hoping to change British] luck, Forbes just didn't want to walk in Braddock's footsteps. [Matters for Braddock's army] had turned out so badly.  [So Forbes] went through Pennsylvania. Washington was just insufferable in arguing against it. He didn't have a bad case that it was a bad idea. But he had the real misfortune that Forbes ended up winning [by ignoring Washington's advice]. So, you have argued vociferously against a winning strategy. You're really on the low ground.

MJT: But as you say, after that he seemed to step away from military affairs. He was not an active part of the military for the final part of the French and Indian War, when they captured Quebec, I mean, pretty much when Fort Duquesne fell, that was the end of his military career in the French and Indian War. 

He picked a good time to get married, then, that's about the time he married Martha Custis. And seemed to settle into the career of a gentleman farmer at that point. Yeah, I guess he really didn't see the military as a future for him at that point. And he really focused more on, he acquired a whole bunch of lands, from his wife and also from Lawrence and family when they passed away. So is that really the career he saw for himself at that point, becoming a gentleman farmer / politician?

DOS: Yeah, I think there's a real inflection point after Fort Duquesne falls, where Washington knows that the military life is not going to work out. And he decides, okay, I'm going to take another road to prominence and success.  I don't mean to be cold blooded about it, but he's been lucky enough to inherit Mount Vernon, because everybody who had a better claim to it died. And he sets off in a remarkably single-minded effort to court and win the hand of Martha Dandridge Custis, who was one of the wealthiest widows in the colony. It was not her family's money, but she had married a very rich man who died. She was about Washington's age.  They were 26-27 at the time, and he basically spent two weekends visiting her and at the end of which they were engaged. We don't have records, but they must have known each other beforehand. It just seems impossible that he showed up cold, but we don't know the story. And they burned each other's letters. So we don't have that information.  That [marriage] was essential. He had inherited Mount Vernon, but he would not have had the assets to turn it into the sort of plantation and seat of his life that he intended, and that a Virginia gentlemen should have. And so Martha's assets really made that possible.

MJT:  So having established himself as a wealthy planter, he begins or furthers his political career by entering the House of Burgesses, about this time, right?

DOS: Yeah, as he's leaving the military service, and even before he does, he stands for election to the House of Burgesses from Frederick County, which is out on the frontier, around Winchester.  You can run wherever you own land, and he did own some land out there, which he bought from the Fairfaxes. So he had this exit strategy planned, and he enters the House shortly after his marriage. 

He's not the most diligent legislator for the first few years. He's busy with Mount Vernon trying to turn it into a paying operation. As you suggest he's avidly pursuing western lands that he thinks will be a wonderful investment, even if they turn out to be a terrible investment. That's 30 years from now.  He doesn't know that. And he is positioning himself and getting his life in order in a way that I think still happens when you get you're sort of ready to settle down and you're ready to start a family. Martha had two children with her first husband.  [George and Martha] never had children on their own. 

And his political engagement, you can really find, very gradually and carefully improving. He's not a natural in the legislature. He bungles a little bit. There's a wonderful episode where he tries to sponsor legislation to stop the running of pigs in Winchester.  You know, when pigs run through the town, it's very unpleasant.  They're destructive, and you know, they defecate wherever they want. It's no fun. And Washington couldn't get it adopted. You know, it was kind of baffling. I mean, who else cares?

MJT: Was there a big pro-pig lobby? 

DOS: From Frederick, yeah.  I mean, like the pigs had their own Burgesses. The legislation is taken over by another fellow, a  very smart lawyer named Edmund Pendleton, whose career would parallel Washington's.  Pendleton very cleverly retitled the legislation. It's no longer about pigs. It's about protecting the water quality. Because of course, if they're pooping everywhere, it's getting into the wells. It's a great example of branding or rebranding, and it sails through. I can just imagine Washington watching this and the light going on. Okay. That's how we get this done. And you can see him advancing, slowly but steadily, within the House, until the conflict Britain gets serious.  Then he becomes a very engaged legislator and political activist.

MJT: That's what I found interesting. He was, for lack of a better word, inoffensive as a legislature. He seemed to make a lot of friends and good relationships within the House of Burgesses. But you know, not particularly outspoken or somebody that was particularly noteworthy. I think you mentioned his dealings with the Robinson affair in your book a little bit, which was a huge scandal and highly divisive among the upper crusts of Virginia society.  He managed to, to weather that fairly well. 

DOS: He kept his head down. 

MJT: So it seems like he was becoming very politic about getting through these difficult situations. So for him to take such an active role in the Patriot cause against King George and against Parliament seems almost out of character from all the other things we see about him. 

DOS: You make a good point. And I see it, frankly, as idealism. He believed in the cause of liberty and self-government and thought the British were trying to deny it to him. There may have been a bit of a shadow of resentment of the way that British had treated him during the French and Indian War, that was a bit of a carryover. But there's no question that he very quickly stakes out what initially, I think, was probably an extreme position: that if we have to fight these people, we're going to fight them, which many other colonists were very slow to come to. And I think he had prepared the ground well for that.  First of all, he did have a military aura and image and tradition around him. And I think also, people understood that he meant what he said.  He had integrity and character, which was respected. So when he takes this position, you know, strength can be appealing. He was never flamboyant, you know, not a Patrick Henry speechmaker, but he did have a sort of adamant quality, determined quality, which I think served him extremely well in the run up to the Revolution.

MJT: Yeah, I was somewhat surprised that he really never played any role in Lord Dunmore's War, which was only a couple of years before independence. I would have thought if he styled himself as a military man that he would have played more of a role in that fight.

DOS: Yeah, you know, I give him credit for that. This is when the colonial Governor Lord Dunmore, heads off into the woods to spank some Indian tribes. And it's a complete irrelevance. It's a dumb thing for Lord Dunmore to have done. I think I give Washington full credit for recognizing that that's not the subject at hand. The subject at hand is between the colonies and Britain and you know, we'll deal with the Indians whenever we have to. And yeah, he just sat that one out completely.

MJT: Yeah, I guess maybe he saw it more as a political distraction from what he wanted to get to. How did Washington do politically in elections? And can you maybe talk about how elections work during the 18th Century?

DOS: Yeah, the House of Burgesses elections, some of these practices continued on. the governor would call the elections. They tended to be every three or four years. And the notice would go out to the county sheriff who would call the election; he had to call it within 30 days., And would usually do it at the county seat because people would come there on court day or market day. It was Viva Voce voting, which meant you had to say [your vote] out loud in front of everybody else in the community. It was accepted that it was very important, who was called on first to vote, and you wanted your voters to be called on first. And we do know that for his first couple of elections in Winchester that Washington always arranged for that to happen, not always in the most scrupulous manner. And I don't mean that he bribed anybody but he certainly did prevail to get influence over the sheriff.

MJT: He lobbied hard. Yeah.

DOS: And, you know, so the, out of the first 15 voters, half of them were related to Washington or Fairfaxes.  He did very well, and won convincingly. After his first two elections, he then switches to running in Fairfax County, which is where Mount Vernon is located and was much more convenient, and more prestigious.  It had the higher class of constituent there. He was largely unopposed there at the time. I think he was unopposed for at least one of the elections. So he had a lot of success in the colonial times and within the House of Burgesses. 

By the time you get to these serious confrontations with Britain in 1773, and 1774, he's a force. He's using Fairfax County as an interesting power base. It's an influential place filled with influential people and he becomes the first man of the county. Everything the county does - he is elected chairman whenever there's a committee to block imports. There's a set of resolutions called the Fairfax resolves, which get continent-wide attention, he's listed right at the very top [of the resolves] as the man presiding. He manages to place himself in the leadership role. He eclipses the men who had really dominated legislative proceedings, men like Patrick Henry or Edmund Pendleton, who were better, frankly, at legislating than he was. But he had the quality of leadership [that] people look to for the confrontation they felt was coming.

MJT: Yeah, I'm wondering how did all this impact his relationship with the Fairfaxes which we're still friends and patrons, but we're also loyalists.

DOS: It's a fascinating thing. And that's, that's a great question. The older generation had passed on except for Lord Fairfax, who basically ducked during the whole revolution.  He just lived quietly in Winchester, trying to sell his land and picked no fights at all. The Fairfaxes who were George Washington's generation, George William, another brother named Bryan, George William seems to have agreed with George Washington that the British were wrong. George William goes back to Britain and they have a lively correspondence. And Washington is completely candid with him that he thinks the British government is just being stupid, and alienating, actively alienating the colonists and blindly doing so. And there's a wonderful exchange of correspondence between Washington and the brother, the younger brother, Bryan Fairfax, who still lived in Virginia, because Bryan Fairfax doesn't really want there to be a war, doesn't want confrontation. And kind of, you know, keeps writing Washington saying, couldn't we just send another petition to the king? We don't actually need to pick a fight. And Washington just writes back these stern letters, you know, the time for petition is over. I'm not doing that again. So the Fairfaxes were very tied back to Britain. Their seat [is]next to Mount Vernon. They ended up losing [it].  For Washington, there was just no repairing the relationship with Britain and the Fairfaxes had to accept it. 

/ / 

MJT: As a leader of the patriot cause Washington is appointed to the First Continental Congress. And then again to the second, it doesn't seem like he spoke a lot at those congresses.

DOS: Yeah, it's an interesting thing that the first Continental Congress, and it's a lot of people from the different colonies who had never met each other.  So it was an awkward time for them to figure out how to deal with each other. And they're looking at cooperating and forming a sort of quasi-government in a way that had never happened. There are leaders there who take prominent positions, and Washington is not one of them. He seems to go to dinner a great deal. And he socializes a lot. He knows a lot of the people from other colonies already.  He's unusual in that regard.  He has gotten around more than the others have. And he builds relationships. And he's not on the key committees. 

He is always the tallest man in the room. He's the guy with some military experience. Not all of it good, but more than anybody else has. And he's content with that.  He describes himself later as having been a witness and an observer at the First Continental Congress. And when they come back for the second one, which is about eight months later, we're going to war. We've gotten Lexington and Concord. I mean, things are getting bloody.

MJT: The Second Continental Congress met, started a month after Lexington and Concord. Right?

DOS: Right. So it's conflict. Washington shows up wearing his militia uniform, which is the least subtle cue in history. He's clearly saying, you know, you can say, Well, he was just showing us patriotism, maybe. But it's hard not to see it as a sort of

MJT: Dressing for the job you want?

DOS: A job application, yeah. And he instantly becomes a significant player. They have a bunch of committees that they need.  They're short term committees, four or five days is all they get. But they have to deal with what are we going to deal with staffing forts in the colony of New York, then? How are we going to find ammunition? You know, where is the gunpowder? Lots of practical military issues. And you've got a bunch of lawyers there and merchants who don't have a clue how to answer these questions. And there's this big guy in a uniform. And so he ends up as the chair of one important committee after another, and it's clear that he's built relationships. He has established himself as knowing something about military matters, which, you know, the others are just agog at having to deal with. And he swiftly rises to a position of great stature.

MJT: What really surprised me though, is when Congress unanimously selects Washington to become commander in chief of the Continental Army, his response is more of I don't really think I'm qualified to do this. Do you think that was false modesty or politicking? Or do you think maybe he thought somebody else was going to be commander and he was going to be a major general in someone else's army?

DOS: I think he intended for himself to be the commander in chief, I don't have any doubt about that. I think he thought there were certain ways he was supposed to behave. And one of them was to say he was not equal to the job. And he may have felt that way. Frankly, it was a ridiculous job, to think that we were going to defeat the British Army. 

But I was struck, when studying the House of Burgesses, with the speeches that the colonial governors would always give, the royal governors. They would always start out saying, as unequal as I am to the difficult jobs thrust upon me, please indulge me and my bumbling ways. I'm paraphrasing, obviously. And what Washington says when he's chosen commander in chief sounds very similar. I think it was the style. I think it's what you did. If you were a gentleman, you said, I'm clearly in overmatched by this job. I'm flattered that you think I might make a go of it. And I'll do my best. And please overlook my mistakes, which is basically what he says. And he goes on to make a few. I think it was ritual modesty, I'm not sure I would call it false modesty. He did have a fair amount to be modest about. 

And it's important to keep in mind that the American talent pool for military leaders was shallow, his competitors were not compelling figures. [Also,] there was a political reason to choose him which he was a southerner. This was starting out as a New England war, it would be good to have a southerner engaged, particularly a Virginian. He had some experience, and it looked like he wanted to do it. And they didn't have anybody else who looked better.

MJT: I think from a military background, a lot of people looked at Charles Lee, but one of the big concerns of Congress was that they not have a new Cromwell, that they have somebody who is going to respect legislative authority and civilian rule of the government. And they saw Washington as that man.

DOS: I think you put your finger on a very important point, which was Lee was arrogant. And they could imagine Lee ignoring them. And Washington was modest, and made it very clear throughout his career with the Continental Army, that he would tell [Congress] what he thought they ought to do, and what they ought to know. But if they told him otherwise, those were his marching orders, and he would follow them. It was a wonderful model to set for our civilian-military relations ever since. And it was one he did adhere to.

MJT: As you point out very well, in your book, Washington did seem to grow into the job not only as a military leader, but as a politician understanding better as an older man than he did as a younger man how to best interact with people and get things done while retaining their respect. Obviously, as commander in chief, he went through quite a few difficult times, the period right before Crossing the Delaware and again with the Conway Cabal a year later. He did have some challenges to his leadership, and some people who really questioned whether he should be the commander in chief. How did Washington use his political skills in those ways?

DOS: I think a central understanding he formed was that Congress was the power. And he was the steward of the army. He had been given that as a responsibility and a duty. But the sovereignty of whatever the United States of America was, resided in Congress. And so he was always very solicitous. He would always reach out to them. He was very careful of his relations, to have an alliance with the powerful members of Congress. And as the war goes on, the quality of the members of Congress declines a bit. In the episode you mentioned, the Conway Cabal, and the troubles that they had at Valley Forge, which are at the same time, he really did deploy congressional influence in a critical way and a very deft way to preserve his own position and reinforce it, and also to improve the position of the army. So I was recently talking to a fellow who was career military man, and he said, Well, you know, show me any officer corps in any army and I'll show you some really good politicians that there's a lot of maneuvering that goes on. And you know, Washington had to deal with that. It was a bureaucracy that had to be managed.  He had to deal with state governors.  He had to deal with local officials and trying to get supplies for his army. That was probably 90% of his job. You know, it wasn't so much fighting the British. It was sort of keeping us organized and keeping our army together. And he was extraordinarily good at that. 

MJT: Yeah, I mean, that was his real strength. I mean, revolutions have a way of eating their young, either they devolve into chaos, or you end up with a dictator like Cromwell, or, in later years, Napoleon, somebody like that. Washington very easily could have fallen into that role. And he seemed to avoid it yet still successfully navigate the army to its eventual victory. Of course, at the very end of the war, he faced a couple of other challenges where his own soldiers wanted to, if not overthrow Congress, at least very seriously challenge them. And we ended up with what's called the Newburgh Conspiracy that he also puts down towards the end of the war.

DOS: It's a terrible moment, frankly, because he completely sympathizes with the officers who are so disgruntled because they haven't been paid. They've been treated very badly. And he thinks they're right. And Congress has not met its obligations. Now, Congress couldn't meet its obligations, I think they wanted to pay the officers, they just didn't have the money. So it was a no-win situation on all sides. But Washington certainly understood that if he had a mutiny on his hands. that was what was threatened, that the army would lose faith with the nation. 

You cannot have an army that turns on its own government. That's an armed mob. So he does manage, at a very dramatic meeting, to persuade them not to. It is a moment where I think he displays what he has learned over the previous 20 years and more. He's not capable of oratory. That's not who he is. And that's not what he's ever going to do. What he is capable of is touching people emotionally. And this is not how we think of Washington. We think of this big, tough guy who was brave and always knew what to do. And, you know, he didn't always know what to do. But he did know how to connect with people. And he gets in front of these officers who are really angry. And it's a bit of play acting, which, you know, I won't try to recreate because I couldn't do it as well as he does. But he demonstrates essentially, that he can't read something he's trying to read. And he reaches for his spectacles, which nobody has ever seen before in the army.  He's just gotten them and says you must forgive me, I have not only grown gray in your service, but also I am going blind. And suddenly the air goes out of the room. And they all remember their shared sacrifices, remember his sacrifices. He's been fighting this war for eight years. And he has shamed them, and they won't betray his trust. It's an extraordinary moment to turn mutineers around, not with high flung rhetoric, not with scolding. But with shared sacrifice.

MJT: The war ends and Washington very famously disbands the army and resigns his commission and returns home to Mount Vernon. At that point, he is really the hero of the nation, if not much of the world.  He's achieved more fame than any man could hope for, and still has enough of his fortune to live comfortably the rest of his life. I get the feeling that Washington was not particularly interested in the idea of ever becoming president, and forming the head of this new government under the Constitution.

DOS: I think that's fair. He leaves the army. And that's a real action. It's not a career move. He wants to go home. But it is a great career move because it persuades everybody that he can be trusted with power. He doesn't crave power, and he'll walk away from it. And in fact, watch him. He's walking away from it. And so it's kind of astonishing. And I don't think he really wanted to take power. Again, he had to be talked into it. And I think, again, it's [that] he's got a powerful sense of duty. He does still believe in the cause. And he thinks the country is headed into the ditch, that we're falling apart under the Articles of Confederation. The government can't really do anything. And the states are fighting with each other and we've got a terrible economic depression. And something's got to be done. 

He knows if he comes back to this constitutional convention that he's back in. It's almost like that scene from The Godfather [3] where Michael Corleone says, you know, just what I'm getting away, they reel me back in. You know, he's reeled back in. He's really got no way out once the Constitution is adopted. He's got to be the first president. And there's nobody else around who even begins to be a contender. He's elected unanimously. He understands it's an honor.  He understands, it's an opportunity But I think you're right that if he hadn't ever done it, he would have been fine.

MJT: I think it really was a sense of duty. The impression I get from the Constitutional Convention is that they never even probably would have had a president or at least not made the chief executive as powerful as it was, if they did not envision George Washington being that man who could be trusted with that level of power.

DOS: Several delegates observed that and with some asperity. They tended to take the view that article two of the Constitution is a little vague, which it is. Because everybody figured, well, Washington will be fine. And you know, there [were] going to be people after Washington if we were lucky. And, you know, maybe we should have thought a little harder, about how we confine their power.

MJT: Yeah, Washington does, obviously serve two terms. He's elected unanimously on both occasions. There is some division by the time he ends his second term.  We see the beginning of political parties starting to divide up. Washington, although he maintains his neutrality clearly seems to favor the Federalist side of things. Is that why he decided to hang it up at that point, that he didn't want to become part of the party divisions, or did he just think I'm too old for this time to go?

DOS: Very much, he was old. He wanted to go home.  He actually wanted to quit after the first term. And he had to be talked into staying and I think that was genuine. He really just wanted to go. And he may have been smart enough to recognize that actually, the second term wasn't going to be as good, and it wasn't. I don't know, the glow of the revolution [was dimming], of the new Constitution, of Washington's own stature -- After four years it all wears off a little.  

We've seen two term presidents.  Usually, the second term is not as good as the first term. We get a little sick of them. We get a little tired of them. And he is by the end of his second term, he's only got Federalists in his cabinet. And there is an opposition led by Jefferson and Madison, that is not represented in his cabinet. So he is seen as a partisan figure at that point, which he doesn't like. He doesn't want to be. So he can't see away, because he doesn't agree with those other guys. So he just, it's time to quit. And so I mean, he finishes his term, but he's delirious to leave.

MJT: Right. And he's almost dragged back into national politics again, after he leaves it as part of the quasi war with France. Although at that point, I think he really decides he's going to be a titular head and really pass off the power to others that he thinks are capable of doing the job in the next generation.

DOS: Yeah, you're exactly right. And he doesn't belong in the army. And he knows it physically, just doesn't want to do it. And he sets it up so Hamilton will be the guy with the actual power, which is a controversial play. Hamilton was a guy who had, there are a lot of people that didn't like him. But lucky for the nation, Adams was able to resolve matters with France, and it never came to blows. 

But it's a final episode that is not especially glorious. There's one moment where Washington and his senior people agreed that we couldn't have any Republicans. And that's what the Jefferson-Madison team was being called. He couldn't have any of them as army officers, because they weren't trustworthy. And that's sort of ugly. I was really sorry to see that, to cry partisanship as he did. It's better if you don't act quite so partisan. So it was not a glorious moment. And so it's good that that army never really had to do anything.

MJT: Washington passes a few years, or short time after that, and obviously doesn't have to deal with being a former president overshadowing his successors for any great length of time, which is probably the most politic thing he could have done at that point. 

DOS: I think having Jefferson as president would have gone down hard for him. His separation from Jefferson had not been terribly friendly, and people would not have liked that much.

MJT: Well, we've pretty much covered Washington's life at that point. Anything else you care to add?

DOS: No, this has been great.

MJT: Are you working on anything else coming out in the future?

DOS: Well, I, you know, I've worked back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. And I have three historical mysteries out. I've just signed to have three historical novels come out, which are inspired by my mother's family's history in this country. There is one of the 18th century, one in the 19th and one in the 20th. And they'll start coming out, I believe, in November. So that's fun. I love to write and it's a great privilege to be able to write both kinds

MJT: Nice. Well, we look forward to those. I will say, I've been a fan of you for some time. I really enjoyed your book The Summer of 1787, about the Constitutional Convention, I think was also a really interesting work. 

DOS: Thank you very much. 

MJT: All right. Well, thanks again for joining us today.

DOS: Thanks so much.

Further Reading

David O. Stewart's new book: George Washington: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father, Dutton, 2021 is available for sale now.

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