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The Political Philosophy of George Washington (The Political Philosophy of the American Founders) Hardcover – March 5, 2009
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"A useful introduction to Washington's political thought. Despite contemporary remarks to the contrary and the paucity of extended political treatises among Washington's papers, Morrison persuasively argues for a Washingtonian political philosophy."(Choice)
"Not only will it reshape our understanding of its chosen subject, it is also a model for all future scholars seeking to examine the political philosophy of a member of the Revolutionary generation of Americans... Admirably concise, thorough, and responsible."(R.B. Bernstein H-Law, H-Net Reviews)
"Morrison's book is a delight. It is filled with provocative ideas, rewarding insight into Washington and his times, a succinctly useful essay on republican ideology, and an illuminating section on the religious outlook of this American founder. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Morrison, his book deserves to be read."(John Ferling Journal of American History)
"Those who accept the ‘dumb general’ caricature should be chastened by Morrison’s elegant and concise sampling of Washington’s writings, which shows how much serious thought percolated through his voluminous corpus... This work deserves to be studied and debated by political scientists, historians, and public intellectuals concerned with America’s fundamental political principles and those of liberal democracy."(Review of Politics)
"The volume does engage the reader with some promising lines of inquiry. Morrison's treatment of Washington's continental perspective and its relation to this political experience, extensive travels, and land holdings is one of the most interest insights of the monograph."(Teena Gabrielson American Review of Politics)
"Morrison’s concise and well-written synthesis of the political philosophy of George Washington reflects the recent popular enthusiasm for the lives and characters of the Founding Fathers. However, Morrison goes beyond the so-called 'founders’ chic' trend and examines Washington’s political thought and theory, a rarely discussed dimension of this emblematic man of the Founding generation... Convincingly explores the legacy of George Washington as a political thinker and rehabilitates him as a public intellectual."(Cercles)
About the Author
Jeffry H. Morrison is an associate professor of government at Regent University and a faculty member at the federal government's James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is the coeditor of The Founders on God and Government and the author of John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic.
Top customer reviews
The inner person that was George Washington is notoriously difficult to pin down and it is no surprise that Professor Morrison relies on explaining his subject's political philosophy through general discussions of classical republican thought, the Enlightenment, and religious (Protestant) foundations. And much of this material is quite useful to a better understanding of our first president. Certainly George Washington was not just a brilliant leader, but one who was exposed throughout his life to great books and advanced thinking. While not blessed with much in terms of formal higher education, he was no blockhead.
Sometimes the writing is a bit odd. For instance, describing Washington when a young militia officer as "jejune" was jarring to my eye and ear. And, to fill out this small book, it seems to me that too much space is given to how this great man referred to God (Almighty, ruler of the universe, etc.) I do not see the relevance of this lengthy discussion when the subject of the book is political philosophy.
I think this is a case of an academic knocking off a respectable book for an existing university press series of such books. It is not a major work of history.
Morrison incisively focuses on George Washington the thinker, and argues that while Washington was neither genius nor wholly original, he still fashioned a political philosophy that has largely been neglected and marginalized in the shadows cast by his Revolution contemporaries. Orthodox historiography identifies Madison and Jefferson as the luminaries of American political philosophy, and outshined by their brilliance, Washington has been consigned to the roles of military tactician, political leader, and moral exemplar. However, Morrison claims, history has yet to recognize that Washington himself had an insightful political philosophy informed by three sources: 1) Classical Greco-Roman philosophers and authors, 2) British Enlightenment Liberalism; and 3) Judeo-Christian virtues.
For his evidence, Morrison disinters a panoply of Washingtonian quotables from private correspondences, as well as the drafts for his inauguration speeches and his farewell address. Unfortunately, there was little evidence presented that demonstrated a 'political philosophy' in the sense one would expect. In fact, the substance of this evidence pertains far more to moral virtues than political philosophy, a conflation that Morrison's work persistently suffers. For example, the classical influence of Seneca and Joseph Addison's Cato are invoked as influences upon GW's philosophy. But according to Morrison, the ideas these works impressed upon GW were that of reason, wisdom, justice, and sacrifice. But these are unquestioned and absolute ideals, and can not by themselves properly comprise a political philosophy. The important difference is between extolling the concept of 'liberty' and delineating how a polity should treat, nurture, and safeguard that concept. As far as my understanding of what a 'political philosophy' is, the latter belongs while the former does not.
Throughout the book, I felt as though Morrison violated a cardinal principle of historical scholarship in that he fashioned the evidence to shape his thesis rather than vice versa: this is the evidentiary cart leading the horse phenomenon that vitiates the cogency of any work. What resulted ultimately was a contrived and fragmented Washingtonian 'philosophy' befitting an ethical code more than a political ideology. Even the components which do resemble political philosophy are flowery regurgitations of the Revolutionary spirit - grandiloquent letters or speeches about natural rights, liberty, happiness, etc. The farewell address, which Morrison instantiates as the best representation of Washington's philosophy, resembles ornate prose more than political philosophy. Clothing the bromides of 'happiness', 'liberty', and 'prosperity' with the sonorous garb of a political speech, there was little 'political philosophy'. What little there was, additionally, bore no meaningful difference from the philosophy of Jefferson, Paine, and other Revolutionary giants. As for the title of the book, I don't see it: there is little to none exposition as to Washington's normative beliefs as to the ideal structure of power and operative form of governance. Morrison even admits that Washington assumed a stoic reticence as to such issues in order to avoid alienating any of the few political sects jostling for power. In fact, not rocking the boat secured Washington's iconic status both past and present as the father of our country and beloved by all - he seemed above politics, and thus more demigod than demagogue. Whether a political calculation or the result of indifference or modesty, Washington didn't enter the arena of political philosophy possibly because as a pragmatist he did not adhere to abstract ideals in order to pursue virtue, justice, freedom, and happiness. To my mind, this appears to be the best encapsulation of Washingtonian philosophy and why he eschewed expressing it. Morrison obviously disagrees, but the crumbs sprinkled from Morrison's tablet as to Washington's political philosophy are as follows:
1) A strong colonial unity and hence a strong central government
2) A distrust of unfettered popular rule
3) Divine providence guided America's destiny
4) All government power is derived from the people via a social compact
5) A government's goal is the preservation of natural rights and the facilitation of individual and collective happiness
Neither of these precepts are original or substantive as to a Revolutionary Era political philosophy. Unlike Madison or Jefferson, Washington never expounded on the practical operation and structure of the government in order to accomplish those aforementioned ideals: Washington presents an equation with only the answer. There are no assertions of 'checks and balances', separation of powers, governmental composition of authority, federal protection of natural rights, etc.
Morrison's thesis is interesting, but the evidence simply isn't there. The Revolutionary era, given its historical import, bears a comparatively fecund supply of source materials given it's distant past. Nevertheless, given the mode of communication and the remoteness of the era, historical evidence - particularly with respect to the thoughts and philosophies of an individual - is still sparse. Washington presents a particularly complicated subject. He was never a prolific writer nor speaker, he never authored a political treatise, and he never drafted a prominent Revolutionary document expounding his principles. Moreover, as Morrison asserts, Washington was quite self -conscious about his erudition and education (or lack thereof), and therefore never flaunted his knowledge and intelligence as Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison did. Given the paucity of the evidence, Morrison has little to work with. Consequently, he can only bring fire to his pages by rubbing together the two sticks of 'thesis' and 'conjecture' until a spark occurs. On page 11, Morrison concedes that "We must be content with making suggestions rather than assertions about the literary sources of Washington's thinking and actions to try to avoid arbitrary and anachronistic historical arguments about influence." Unfortunately, Morrison does not heed his own admonition. What results is a repetitive and conclusory 180 pages bearing more conjecture than philosophy. Inevitably, this book is worth reading because Morrison indeed has an impressive command of Washington's biography. Nevertheless, his feckless efforts to prove his thesis undermine that reality.