Friday, August 4, 2023

The Bacon Presidential Library vol. 8: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father

George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father
David O. Stewart
Dutton Publishing
576 Pages

It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything as part of my Presidential Reading Project. I actually read it back at the end of October, but didn’t get a chance to write my review because of holidays, school commitments, and a family member’s brush with a Covid infection. Finally, I am able to sit down and write a whole slew of reviews, and this is the first one on the list.

When I read this book, it was the newest of the biographies on George Washington. In the meantime, another book has come out about the life of our first president, but this book by David O. Stewart details his entire life rather than just one particular aspect of it like the newest book. (That review is coming very soon as I just finished that one.)

David O. Stewart is a former attorney who turned his attention to writing both history books and historical fiction novels. His first book, The Summer of 1787, was an intimate look at the creation of the United States Constitution. At the time of its release, it was hailed as an engaging narrative of the personalities involved in forming a more perfect document for the young, fragile nation. It was not just a dry recitation of the facts. It was my hope as I opened Stewart’s Washington biography, that I would find the same focus on telling the story rather than the Ben Stein-esque, ‘and then… and then.”

Many biographies often portray Washington as an almost infallible man, bordering on deification. Only recently, John Ferling’s The Ascent of George Washington tended to break that mold, focusing on the man and his flaws. Stewart follows suit with this book, although not nearly as critical of Washington as Ferling. Stewart’s biography is a more tempered look at George Washington, focusing on his triumphs, tragedies, and his political missteps throughout his life. 

This book takes a different look at Washington’s part in the Battle of Jumonville than other biographers. Widely accepted as a critical mistake in the young Washington’s military career, the ill fated mission in 1754 is considered to be the spark that lit the French and Indian War. And Lieutenant Colonel George Washington played a pivotal role in that. Stewart justifies Washington’s attack. It was fight back or continue to be walked all over by the French in British America. 

Another place where Stewart’s biography differs from most others is Washington’s relationship with Sally Fairfax. Many others have written of an illicit, if never proven, love affair between the young farm and his neighbor’s wife. In a time where we have websites dedicated to tantalizing stories and sexual inuendo, Stewart wades past all of that to an adage that we all have seem to have forgotten. Men and women can be just friends - especially gentlemen. Sometimes, they can even be confidants, which may give the casual viewer the implication of something more. Stewart’s view can be taken in conjunction with the opposing views where the readers can make up their own minds. Again, both sides of this argument can only be conjectural as there is no evidence left to clear the uncertainties. 

Stewart also tackles the question of slavery in this book. In the past few years, this has become a slipperier and slipperier slope. Too often, modern takes muddy the waters when it comes to the subject of slavery. Let there be no doubt - slavery was and is an abomination. However, Stewart looks at the institution from the time frame in which it occurred and how Washington’s view on slavery evolved over time, especially after his close friendship with Marquis de Lafayette. Stewart explores these changes and how they affected Washington. Only after he’s explored this does Stewart add his own opinion that Washington’s final decree for his own slaves was “too little, too late.” To Stewart’s credit, he openly establishes that this is his own opinion.

David O. Stewart’s George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father is one of the easier biographies on George Washington to read. While it is not quite as engaging as Ron Chernow’s Washington, the author explores the life of Washington in a way that makes you ask questions about what you thought you knew about our first president. At slightly less than 600 pages, it’s not as overwhelming as some of the other books, and it’s written in a way to keep even the casual reader turning the pages.

Craig Bacon is ready to read and to read a lot. There are two boxes of Presidential books calling his name in the hallway.

Next Up: Washington at the Plow: The Founding Father & the Question of Slavery by Bruce A. Ragsdale