Washington’s End: A book review by Bob Morris

Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle
Jonathan Horn
Scribner (February 2020)

The end of “the American Cincinnatus” and the beginning of a city “that no one could control”

There are two periods in U.S. history that have received far less attention than they deserve: one is from Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown (October 19, 1781) until George Washington’s selection by the Electoral College to be the first president (March 4 1789); the other is from 1793 when Washington returned to Mount Vernon after serving two terms until his death on December 14, 1799. Jonathan Horn includes whatever historical material is relevant in the first period while concentrating almost entirely on the second.

It is interesting to note that Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army for more than eight years but spent only ten days during that period at Mount Vernon. Consider these remarks in this letter to LaFayette, dated February 1, 1784:I am not only retired from all public employments but I am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk and tread the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction … I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers.”

Washington later accepted — with understandable reluctance, given his specific circumstances — an appointment by President John Adams (July, 1798) to return to public service as a lieutenant general and commander in chief of U.S. armies. He served until his death seventeen months later.

These are among the subjects of greatest interest to me.

o What Washington and Cincinnatus share in common and how they differ significantly
o His opinion of the idolatry that he generated
o His attitude toward the “rising city” that bears his name
o The specifics of his vision of new nation’s future
o His greatest challenges when he returned to Mount Vernon in 1783

o His relationships with the other founding fathers, notably Adams and Jefferson
o His marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis (a widow) and her two children marriage
o His management of Mount Vernon
o His perspectives on slavery (he owned 300+ slaves and five farms)
o His most significant health issues

o What pleased him most (i.e. when he was happiest)
o What upset him most
o How he probably wanted to be remembered
o His attitude toward death
o The nature and extent of reactions to his death

This is a unique, brilliant, and compelling account of a great leader’s decline amidst the emergence of what would become a great city and eventually a  great nation. Check out Horn’s wide and deep scholarly research indicated by the “Notes” section (Pages 231-301) and Bibliography (303-315). He has thoroughly examined the two aforementioned periods of U.S.history.

Abigail Adams once expressed her fear that Washington the city may cast the actual human being “into a shade” of much less significance. Jonathan Horn shares that concern, as do I. In fact, that process seems to be happening now. Many people today see the nation’s capital as a “container of the feuding and factions tearing them apart and wonder how much longer longer it itself can hold together.In every succeeding generation, they will talk as if they are living in the last days of Washington. It shall be as if they never ended.”

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