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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