""Mr. President"": George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office
“. . . [strips] away the mythological haze surrounding one of our most important founding fathers.”
Perhaps no other founding father is so steeped in our American mythos as George Washington. The painted ceiling of the rotunda on Capitol Hill resonates this theme with its depiction of the revered Washington being ushered to heaven upon a throne, aptly titled “The Apotheosis of George Washington.”
As it is with many a history textbook and well-intended school lesson, our collective knowledge of early American history is anemic and information about the creation of our highest public office is no exception.
With “Mr. President:” George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office Harlow Giles Unger gives our precious American history the backbone it deserves and reveals more of Washington the man than Washington the demigod as we might have believed him to be.
As children we are indoctrinated into the American mythology of George Washington and his daring deeds as a general; we are pointedly aware of his participation in the formation of our new government; we are told the man became our first president . . . then we move on to math perhaps, or reading The Iliad, or even better, recess!
We really are not taught, at least in public schools, the magnitude of Washington’s contribution to forming the office of the president, much less to stabilizing a newborn country.
Can we forego our history simply because we have a contemporary framework within which to view the presidency? The wisest among us know we cannot.
Mr. Unger makes an irrefutable case for clearing away the wisps of time and seeing George Washington as the man he was, not the icon we’ve created. The author reminds us of Washington’s background, more thoroughly grounding him in the context of the consummate agrarian, devoted family man, and—contrary to what some scholars would like us to believe—a surprisingly wise and learned man outside the battlefield.
The U.S. presidency at the outset set up its occupant as a mere figurehead. Although the Constitution gave the president “executive power” it failed to define precisely what “executive power” meant. Since this “power” wasn’t enumerated within the Constitution Washington had precious little to work with when he stepped into the role.
“Mr. President” is by no means a hardcore political read, but of necessity— and historical relevance—politics colors the narrative. Mr. Unger has the ability to not let his scholarship weigh down his story. History can be yawn inducing, but Mr. Unger puts his arm around us as if he is a travel companion telling a story—our story—with the pacing of a solid novel.
One may recall mention of the Whiskey Rebellion, but did you know Washington himself, at over 60 years of age, actually suited up and rode in a carriage to physically confront the instigators?
Many instances of almost complete collapse of the American Revolution are documented, but much less familiar may be the story of how disturbingly close our infant nation came to imploding at the hands of a new minister from France . . . who had the ardent support of Thomas Jefferson.
Through events such as these Mr. Unger shows us how Washington used power not as a personal enrichment but to fulfill the Constitutional directive as befits the president. By erecting what the author refers to as the “seven pillars” of presidential power Washington laid the foundation for every president to follow.
Patriotism is a worthy value. Our American system of government and the law it is based upon engender deep feelings of love for country. But any dissertation on the roots of our freedoms must be fully objective lest it be construed as propaganda or hyperbole. Mr. Unger has objectively stripped away the mythological haze surrounding one of our most important founding fathers.