The Political Philosophy of George Washington
Jeffry H. Morrison
The Political Philosophy of the American Founders
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009
xxi, 226 p. $40.00. ISBN: 978-0-8018-9109-0
Reviewed by Yohanna Alimi
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III
Jeffry H. 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. This volume, which is part of a series focusing on the political philosophy of the American founders,(1) is not a biography but rather a “brief readable introduction to Washington’s political thought and the ideologies of his day” [xiii]. By focusing on the political theories which influenced his decisions and actions throughout his life, the author aims at deconstructing the popular mythology depicting George Washington as a national saint with transparent motives, and chooses to emphasize the complexity of a man who faced the challenges of American nation-building.
Morrison, an associate professor of government at Regent University, provides a well-researched overview of the three ideologies which influenced Washington’s political thought: classical republicanism, British liberalism and Protestant Christianity. He argues that Washington, like most of the American founders, drew from all these traditions to guide and justify his actions as commander in chief of the Continental Army and as president of the United States. The author makes systematic use of evidence from primary sources (especially letters from his correspondence and public addresses) to show how Washington used certain principles from these political theories and applied them to practical situations. Morrison’s thorough analysis of Washington’s writings shows that “the father of the country” not only echoed the language of these political theories, but also absorbed these ideologies and therefore managed to “embody so completely the political thought of the American founding, including its classical republican, British Enlightenment liberal, and Protestant Christian sources” . But the specificity of Washington’s political philosophy, compared to the other founders, is certainly his ability to make use of these three ideologies to make the best decisions in order to serve the national interests. Indeed, Washington is portrayed as a pragmatic man who instrumentalized the theories as well as the language of these ideological sources for political purposes. Morrison argues that Washington was not an innovative and creative thinker who articulated new theories, but rather made intelligent and pragmatic use of the ideologies and rhetoric which “were, as the phrase goes, ‘in the air’ of the eighteenth century”  to legitimize his actions.
Before examining the three ideological components of his political philosophy in three major chapters, the author begins with a brief account of Washington’s political life to explain the circumstances in which he became a political thinker and actor. The lessons that he learned from experience as a burgess, planter, or in the service of the country during the American Revolution and as president, conditioned his political thinking and taught him about the realities of public life and practical politics. As a leader, he used the political convictions that he had acquired from experience to shape the contours of American constitutionalism. Not only did his conception of the executive as a strong and energetic power largely influence the debates of the Constitutional Convention, but his practice of politics set long-lasting precedents on the presidential institution.
The second chapter of the book is devoted to the examination of the influence of the classical republican political philosophy on Washington’s political thinking. It is important to bear in mind that the propensity to adopt and follow classical republican principles was not specific to Washington since, Morrison reminds us, most founders tended to look back to the classical past and embraced the principles and virtues of ancient Greek and Roman political culture and philosophy. However, the author asserts that Washington was certainly “the most classically republican American of his generation” and that “his natural agrarianism, stoical character traits, preference for republican government, and seeming indifference to power” explained why he had so often been presented as “an American Caesar” even though he “more nearly resembled Cincinnatus or Cicero” . Indeed, although he was given dictatorial powers by Congress during the Revolutionary War, he led the country in a virtuous and disinterested way and defended the public good and the common interest of the young nation.
In the following chapter, Morrison argues that Washington’s political philosophy was largely based on British Enlightenment liberal thought and that Washington made use of British liberal arguments not only to justify the American Revolution, but also to defend his conception of the union as an “American empire” of liberty and to legitimize his policy of neutrality in foreign affairs. Lockean liberal political theory was the main source from which Washington drew to justify the rebellion against the Mother Country by invoking the concepts of consent of the governed and natural rights. Moreover, the priority placed on liberty and property rights by the British liberal thinkers largely inspired Washington’s belief in the necessity of a strong executive to protect and secure those rights in domestic and foreign affairs.
The final chapter traces the influences of Protestant Christianity on Washington’s political theory and portrays the first American president as a virtuous and religious man who championed religious liberty and toleration. Morrison also emphasizes Washington’s role in fashioning the religious identity of the United States. By juxtaposing quotations from his writings and public addresses and excerpts from the Bible, the author effectively demonstrates that Washington extensively used biblical language in his political rhetoric to promote religiosity and morality in the young republic and also to achieve more pragmatic political ends such as “foster[ing] unity in the infant United States” . Washington’s belief in Providence and in the providential destiny of the young nation shows that his view of the mission of the United States was quite similar to John Winthrop’s idea of a “city upon a hill”. His faith in divine protection of the country and his understanding of religion as a pillar of civil society demonstrate that Washington placed great importance on morality and religion in his political project for the United States.
By discussing these three ideological influences in three distinct chapters, Morrison deliberately implies that all three traditions equally influenced Washington’s political philosophy. The author chose such an organization in order to demonstrate that all three theoretical influences can equally impact the political philosophy of one man. I believe that Morrison’s approach, which aims at studying the influence of republicanism and liberalism in particular without ever asserting that one ideology supplants the other, reflects the way scholars have envisaged those two traditions over the past few years.(2) Indeed, Morrison is going past the ideological debate among historians which opposed the liberal and republican readings of the American Revolution, and proposes an interpretation of the political philosophy of George Washington that presents republicanism and liberalism as two compatible and even complementary ideological traditions.
By and large, the book succeeds in giving the reader a new perspective on perhaps the most beloved and venerated political figure in the United States. It convincingly explores the legacy of George Washington as a political thinker and rehabilitates him as a public intellectual. The author cannot resist celebrating Washington’s modesty, devotion for the country and morality even though the first American president sometimes cultivated those values to give magnitude to his actions and eventually set political and moral precedents on American political culture.
(1) See Garrett Ward Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), and The Political Philosophy of James Madison (2000); Jack Fruchtman Jr., The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (2009. See Review).
(2) See for instance, Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson, Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns (Cambridge: University Press, 2008). Katznelson and Kalyvas examine the relationship between republicanism and liberalism as two intrinsically linked ideologies.
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