Sunday, April 4, 2010

Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith

by Richard Norton Smith

Patriarch recounts the life of George Washington from his presidency through his death. We learn of how the most revered figure in America's short history was brought low by the uncertainty of leading a young nation, yet emerged from political infighting and national growing pains to become revered as the greatest leader – if not the greatest president – in our nation’s history.

While Dr. Smith carefully analyzes the events of the day, he highlights how this larger than life figure set the precedents for national leadership embraced by leaders today. George Washington is not only the father of his country, but the father of the presidency.

Washington’s prestige as the general who led the Continental Army to victory over the British in the American Revolution was not enough to exempt him from the slings and arrows of politics and the divisiveness of an emerging political party system. While Washington was a nominal Federalist, he declared allegiance to no party and decried the development of political factions within the nascent American federal government.

That divisiveness eroded Washington’s popularity while he was in office. His relations with Congress were often contentious. His executive actions often led to bitter anger and hatred with regional factions. His popularity – so immense it got him elected president nearly by acclamation – plunged through the years of his presidency.

Patriarch does not delve too deeply into Washington’s early life or military career except to set the context of Washington’s presidency.

Smith does a superb job of showing us Washington's human frailties (A harsh temper and an overly aristocratic and detached manner) while not diminishing the character of this powerful figure from American history. Washington, not born into wealth, property, or nobility, was nonetheless one of the most regal figures of his day, far surpassing the cold and detached John Adams whose reputation continues to suffer today for it.

Smith deftly demonstrates the leadership Washington's leadership ability in the bitter feud between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Both vied for the upper hand with the president; neither got it. But Washington relied on both heavily and managed to extract the best that each man had to offer.

Washington defined much of the presidency as we know it today. He set the precedents and practices that today clearly define the separation of powers. Today, presidents remain aloof of Congress – appearing on Capitol Hill only to deliver the State of the Union (a constitutionally mandated message Washington chose to deliver in writing). He reserved the right to discharge members of his cabinet (the point of contention that led the impeachment of Andrew Johnson) while observing the senate’s role of advise and consent in their hiring.

He proposed little in the way of legislation and seldom meddled in the deliberations of Congress – a practice that has ebbed and flowed with the various personalities to inhabit the executive mansion. In the mind of Washington, it was the role of Congress to develop policy and the role of the president to reject it or ratify it and enforce it as law.

He established American legitimacy in foreign relations while straddling the constant friction between anglophiles and Francophiles within Congress and his own administration. He kept the bloody French Revolution at arms length of American diplomacy while diplomatically not decrying its brutality. Without fear of reprisal or regret, he openly Edmond Charles Genet, a French ambassador who worked hard to stir anti-British and anti-Washington fervor to gain American aid for French revolutionaries.

Smith is clearly and admirer of George Washington. It’s difficult if not impossible to find an historian who is not. It’s hard to be critical of any person’s actions or conduct when those actions and conduct have no historical precedent.

The republic that was the United States when George Washington took office in 1789 was a brand new concept in governance – governance by the consent of the governed. It would have been easy for Washington or those acting in his name to usurp the power of the presidency and create a monarchy – if not in title, in practice. It was Washington’s stature as a man and leader as well as the practices and precedents he established that has allowed the American presidency to endure as an institution despite successors who were less than worthy of its title and power.

Richard Norton Smith is the director of the Robert J. Dole Institute for Public Policy at the University of Kansas. Prior to that, he served as curator of the Gerald R. Ford Library at the University of Michigan, and curator of the Herbert Hoover Library.

It was my pleasure to have dinner and enjoy a lecture Dr. Smith conducted at the Rutherford B. Hayes Library when I worked for Sen. Mike DeWine. I sat at a table with Smith, Dr. Roger Bridges who was the curator of the Rutherford B. Hayes Library and Birthplace Museum, and the President Emeritus of Kenyon College (whose name eludes me now) at dinner and got the rare privilege of listening to three distinguished presidential scholars discuss over drinks some of my favorite historical topics. It ranks as one of my most treasured professional events.

Patriarch may not be the most thorough examination of Washington's life, but it is meticulous examination of the man's presidency and character.

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