The Presidency of George Washington / the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson / the Presidency of James Madison / the Presidency of James Monroe / the Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Taylor / and Others

Article excerpt

The Presidency of George Washington. By FORREST McDONALD. American Presidency Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974. xi, 210 pp. $25.00 cloth; $9.50 paper.

The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. By FORREST MCDONALD. American Presidency Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976. xi, 201 pp. $25.00 cloth; $9.95 paper.

The Presidency of James Madison. By ROBERT ALLEN RUTLAND. American Presidency Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990. xiii, 233 pp. $25.00.

The Presidency of James Monroe. By NOBLE E. CUNNINGHAM, JR. American Presidency Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996. xvi, 246 pp. $29.95.

The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison & John Tyler. By NORMA Lois PETERSON. American Presidency Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. xiv, 329 pp. $26.95.

The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore. By ELBERT B. SMITH. American Presidency Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. xi, 302 pp. $25.00.

The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. By KENDRICK A. CLEMENTS. American Presidency Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. xvi, 303 pp. $29.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.

THE occasion for this collective reconsideration is the publication of the last of the volumes in the University Press of Kansas's histories of the presidencies that treats chief executives of the United States who were born in Virginia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson. The volumes in the series follow a standard format. Each opens with a section on the problems and opportunities facing the nation at the outset of the administration and contains a brief biographical section (two biographical sections in the cases of the books on Harrison and Tyler and on Taylor and Millard Fillmore), and an account of the election that placed the administration in office. Each book is based in large part on the author's knowledge and research in the primary records, but each also takes into account the work and interpretations of other leading students of the period.

George Washington was the first president and in the estimation of many students of the office one of the best; and Forrest McDonald's Presidency of George Washington was the first in the series to be published. McDonald writes very well, sometimes glibly, and he has the ability to make even subjects as complicated and (to most people) abstruse as Alexander Hamilton's financial plans seem clear. McDonald's speculations about motivations are fascinating and sometimes controversial, but his overall judgments, based on exceptionally thorough grounding in the sources, are thoughtful and entitled to respect. In his preface, McDonald asserts with typical boldness, JIT]here is more to the institution of the presidency than what any particular president does: there is a symbolic, ritualistic, almost mystical quality that inheres in the office as well, and it was toward the endowment of the office with that vital if elusive quality that Washington's greatest contribution was directed. ... [I]t is no exaggeration to say that, but for George Washington, the office of president might well not exist" (p. ix).

That may not have been the objective Washington sought, but Washington knew precisely what his public reputation was and how essential he was to the success of the new government. In McDonald's view Washington's presidency was critical for giving the then-new Constitution a chance to work, for enabling Alexander Hamilton to contrive his farsighted fiscal and commercial policies, and for permitting the country to preserve its independence and assert its international rights during the European wars that began as a result of the French Revolution. McDonald concludes, in a judgment with which many people would agree but only in part, that "George Washington was indispensable, but only for what he was, not for what he did" (p. …