Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789

Article excerpt

The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789. By Edward J. Larson. (New York: William Morrow, 2014. Pp. [xviii], 366. $29.99, ISBN 978-0-06-224867-1.)

In December 1783 George Washington retired, at age fifty-one, as arguably the most famous person in the Western world. Having led America's defeat of Britain in war, thereby securing his country's independence, Washington seemed content to play the role of the Roman statesman Cincinnatus and withdraw from public life. Just over three years later, however, he returned to the public stage by assuming the presidency of the Constitutional Convention and, soon after, of the nation itself. The period of Washington's so-called first retirement, from his resignation as commander in chief of the Continental army in 1783 until his inauguration as president in 1789, is the subject of Edward J. Larson's elegantly written narrative. Despite his book's title--The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789--Larson's argument is that Washington never truly left.

Washington spent the first several months of his retirement trying to restore order to his Mount Vernon estate, which he had visited only once during the Revolutionary War. His next objective was to check on his frontier landholdings scattered across western Virginia and Pennsylvania. Larson is at his best following Washington's movements on the frontier. To Washington's dismay, he discovered squatters living on some of his lands and Indian groups blocking access to other properties. The experience reinforced Washington's impression that America's national government under the Articles of Confederation needed strengthening.

Washington returned from his western travels also convinced that the Potomac River should serve as America's main passageway to the West, and he worked to convince members of the Virginia and Maryland state governments to charter the Potomac Company. He served as the company's president until resigning in 1789, unsuccessful at finding a way to link the Potomac and Ohio River systems with canals. …

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