George Washington's South

By Rice, James D. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

George Washington's South


Rice, James D., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


George Washington's South * Tamara Harvey and Greg O'Brien, eds. * Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004 * x, 345 pp. * $59.95

George Washington's South grew out of a 1999 conference marking the bicentennial of Washington's death. The twelve contributors were given a loose mandate to explore the relationship between George Washington and the South, which might easily have led to a thematically and conceptually fragmented volume. Instead, this book achieves an impressive degree of integration and coherence, with each successive essay fitting into the web spun by its predecessors.

The central threads in this web are spun out in Tamara Harvey and Greg O'Brien's excellent introduction. They begin with an account of Washington's 1791 tour of the South, in which they discern a series of issues that confronted him (and modern scholars, too): the formation of the South as a distinctive region, the ways in which Washington personally shaped (and was shaped by) the South, and the ways in which Indians and enslaved Africans shaped the rise of Washington and the South.

The first four essays emphasize the extent to which the South had to be created. During Washington's youth the southern colonies were a patchwork of enclaves dominated by Creeks and Tidewater planters; by Germans and Africans; and by French, Spanish, and English-speakers. As Martin Bruckner demonstrates, British mapmakers began presenting the South as a coherent region only in the mid-eighteenth century. As part of the grand imperial struggle among France, Spain, and England over the North American continent, mapmakers fostered an imperial vision of America by eliminating ambiguous boundaries between English colonies, First Nations, and imperial rivals.

Washington was very much a part of this imperial project. He first came to prominence when he was sent to the Ohio Country to contest French claims to that western territory; and later, as president, he assimilated that mid-eighteenth-century British imperial project into his vision for the United States. Ironically, the same imperial impulses that had given rise to the notion of the South as a coherent region-and catapulted Washington to international prominence-came to be seen as threats to the unity of the United States. …

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