While we all know George Washington as our first president and leader of American forces in the Revolutionary War, in The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson illuminates another key role he played: leading the Constitutional Convention.
It was, it turns out, a charge Washington took on reluctantly. After securing victory in the Revolutionary War after nine years of dedicated leadership, the towering 51-year-old general announced his retirement on December 23, 1783. But a private life was not to be his. Less than four years later, with health problems a continuing concern, Washington faced a dilemma: Should he attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia?
As Larson tells us, the future president realized that, “For his own sake and the sake of the country, he should not go unless the convention was likely to succeed, and yet it was not likely to succeed unless he went.”
And so it was. The delegates elected Washington president of the convention to lead them through the morass any rebelling society faces: It is one thing to achieve military victory, quite another to design a functioning government. In America’s case, there was also the need to balance the interests of the central government with the concerns of powerful, independent-minded states.
Larson brings readers into innards of the Constitutional Convention: the formation of committees to tackle issues such as presidential selection and executive power, debates on the power to tax and the length of the president’s term and the crafting of language to meet the desires of both nationalists and their opponents. There was even a “Committee of Style and Arrangement” charged with giving the draft document a “last polish.” And, of course, in the end, Washington accepted the mantle of leadership.
As elections role around once more, Larson’s impeccable research and impressive storytelling acumen may be just the thing readers need to restore appreciation for the system of government we inherited, and still strive to perfect.