The Political Philosophy of George Washington
Henriques, Peter R., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Political Philosophy of George Washington * Jeffry H. Morrison * Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2009 * xxiv, 227 pp. * $40.00
Reviewed by Peter R Henriques, emeritus professor of history at George Mason University. He is the author of Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (2006).
After an introductory chapter tracing George Washington's political life, Jeffry H. Morrison devotes the final three sections of his book to the three main pillars of Washington's political philosophy: classical republicanism, British liberalism, and Protestant Christianity. Morrison is in agreement with the growing trend among contemporary historians arguing for the centrality of Washington's role in the founding of the nation and that he was a much more thoughtful and informed leader than had been previously thought. He makes the case that, although not a systematic thinker, Washington had a political philosophy that, with the exception of his views on slavery, was surprisingly consistent throughout his mature life.
The book contains a number of valuable quotations and some pithy insights: Washington's "interest in his own reputation . . . bordered on self-absorption" (p. 8); his "mind, like the proverbial mill of the gods, may have ground slowly, it ground exceedingly fine" (p. 12); he was "a political thespian of no mean ability" (p. 26); he "balanced public piety with religious liberty in uniquely American ways" (p. 136). Morrison effectively demonstrates that Washington was much more familiar with the Bible than scholars generally recognize.
That said, on balance the book is disappointing. Although many of them are not central to his thesis, there are enough nagging misstatements to weaken one's confidence in the main conclusions of the author. It would certainly be an interesting contribution if, in fact, John Marshall rather than Henry Lee (not Richard Henry Lee as claimed by the author) was the creator of the famous line, "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countryman," but, in fact, Marshall simply spoke what Lee wrote. Washington did not attend the Annapolis Convention; he was president until 1797, not 1796, and he did not "resign" the office. He did not suspect on Friday the 13th that his sore throat was "mortal" but rather said, "let it go as it came" (p. 21). He was not born on 1 1 February in 1732 old style but rather in 1731. It is a mistake to say that the Washington family was "not even proper gentry" (p. 23). To characterize his trip to warn the French about the Ohio Valley as leading an "expedition" is an overstatement (p. …