George Washington

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn

 

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn offer a thoughtful double portrait of our most celebrated Founding Father. They contrast the public persona that George Washington self-consciously created - with his plain black coat, regal state portraits and dignified levees, the leader "gravely willing to sacrifice himself for his country, proud of his symbolic role embodying American nationhood" - with the less familiar personality that Washington chose to obscure: the "ferociously ambitious" country gentleman "managing to overcome his insecurities and apprehensions, wearing the self-effacing mask of modesty, a man fiercely protective of his own reputation."

Burns, an emeritus professor of political science at Williams College, and Dunn, a humanities professor at Williams, argue that Washington was a masterly chief executive, well able to manage the most brilliant administration ever assembled, but that his disdain for party politics led Washington to convince himself, wrongly, that he had remained above the fray. Even as he favored Federalists and distrusted Thomas Jefferson's Republican supporters, Washington could maintain that he saw "no discordance" between the Virginian's agrarian vision and Alexander Hamilton's ambitious business-and-industry program. Washington "succeeded brilliantly at fostering national unity," Burns and Dunn conclude, "but he failed markedly in also trying to foster political unity. He mistakenly believed that it was possible to dissolve political differences, forge a national consensus and banish opposition." The acclaim with which Washington's first term had begun was tarnished by partisan infighting and scandal in the cabinet, finally with mockery in the press. Yet even if his statesman's vision sometimes failed, one leaves this book respecting Washington for enduring the frictions and frustrations of the presidency with almost the same gravity he had shown in defining the office.

ALLEN D. BOYER

New York Times Book Review

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George Washington

By James MacGregor Burns

and Susan Dunn

Times Books/Holt