Washington’s Circle: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 23rd, 2015 by bobmorris

Washington's CircleWashington’s Circle: The Creation of the President
David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Random House (March 2015)

How and why the creation of a new nation and of the leader it would need were not only related but interdependent.

As I worked my way through the first several chapters, I was again reminded of another president whose “circle” was as diversified and at times as volatile as George Washington’s but at least our nation’s 16th president had a governmental structure in place — albeit threatened by secessionists — and more options to consider and resources to work with. Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” struggled to preserve what Washington and his colleagues struggled to establish. David and Jeanne Heidler explain that Washington had a wide range of acquaintances but only some of them had a part “in the story of eight years in office and the making of the presidency beyond the man. As a consequence, the criteria for the circle should be obvious: These are the people who had close involvement in the nation’s major events and who were intimately involved with Washington as a private and public figure during the opening years of the constitutional republic.”

Two points need to be stressed. First, the leaders of the new nation had rejected a monarchy and had no prior experience with any form of government headed by an elected leader. Also, neither George Washington nor anyone else was fully prepared to serve as that leader but he was clearly the best choice. He relied on his circle of advisors to help address the questions that needed to be answered and the problems that needed to be solved. That is the “story” the Heidlers tell and tell so well: how “an improbable Virginia farmer and his unlikely companions” saved the new nation from what seemed certain “crib death” to those elsewhere, those “who required a crown and council for governance and prosperity, the people knowing their place as subjects, the imperium bound by the blood of royals, justified by a state-sanctioned church, and sustained by the sword.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of their coverage:

o Tobias Lear (15-16, 182-183, and 222-223)
o John Adams (22-23, 254-255, 337-338, 395-396, and 419-420)
o Washington’s appearance at the first inauguration (Pages 32-35)
o Discussion of James Madison (54-71)
o Alexander Hamilton (93-94, 147-148, and 341-342)
o Thomas Jefferson (56-57, 126-136, and 147-148)
o Henry Knox (164-169 and 422-423)
o Washington’s tour of the South in 1791 (203-209)
o Edmund Randolph (231-233, 370371, and 428-429)
o George Mason 249-250 and 247-248)
o John Jay (314-316 and 345-346)
o Benedict Arnold’s treachery (353-361 and 359-363)
o Marquis de Lafayette (356-363 and 427-428)
o Washington’s character and personality (371-372 and 387-388)
o Opposition to Jay’s Treaty (378-380)
o Washington’s retirement and death (404-413)

By all accounts, George Washington was an exhausted man when he retired from public service for the third time. He was indeed, as Henry Lee III suggests in his eulogy, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” As for his circle, the Epilogue provides brief explanations of what happened to its most prominent members Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon.

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the abundance of information and insights that David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler provide in this volume. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I hold it in such high regard. They create a context, a frame-of-reference, within which to understand and appreciate a warrior/statesman whose “sense of duty was highly developed and his manner cordial but detached [and whose] contrasting elements of his temperament marked a special quality in George Washington, one that made his seemingly incongruous parts into a harmonious whole. Her was obsessed with exerting control but careful to avoid abusing the power that came with it.” At least to me, the creation of a new nation and of the leader it would need were not only related but interdependent.

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