Don Higginbotham. George Washington: Uniting a Nation. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002. xii + 173 pp. $20.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-2209-1; $22.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-2208-4.
Reviewed by Tim Blessing (Alvernia College)
Published on H-War (April, 2005)
Unshelling Washington: The Salient Leader as National Conveyance
It is difficult to compress into one review the many-stranded argument that Don Higginbotham weaves through this tightly coiled meditation on George Washington. The wonder of it all is that Higginbotham uses only 88 pages to do so himself. Subtle, complex, and easily taken too lightly due to its briefness of exposition, this book ranks with Joseph Strayer's On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State or Philip Aries's Western Attitudes Towards Death for sheer economy and weight of argument. The exposition builds upon itself until finally Higginbotham joins the strands of his exposition together on virtually the last page: "a country's destiny can be shaped by a great man rather than impersonal socio-economic forces" (p. 85).
And thus does Higginbotham join the debate over the "great man" in history, a debate which has not ceased since the days of Carlisle and Tolstoy; a recent discussion over the importance of leaders to leadership, conducted on the listserv of the International Leadership Association (firstname.lastname@example.org), went through fifty-five posts in twenty-five days. The recent literature on leadership, however, rarely examines leadership in terms of specific leaders and, among many scholars who work in Leadership Studies, there is a marked reluctance to relate leadership to individuals. Higginbotham addresses the argument over the "great man: with clinical skill and precision, not as some theoretical or laboratory exercise, but rather by painting, stroke by stroke and example by example, a portrait of Washington "the Unifier." By the time Higginbotham is done, there can be little doubt as to the salience of Washington, his personal characteristics and their import in building the new nation.
The idea of another "great man" book on Washington could easily cause many scholars to shudder. The reality demonstrated in Higginbotham's book, however, is a very different thing. The book is crafted in such a way as to show how Washington and the nation grew in counterpoint to one another. The early Washington is pictured just as we have known him to be for many decades: vain, self-important, and perhaps foolish. Washington's colonial associates reveal (again as we have known for many decades) their intense belief in their own "Britishness," (perhaps delusively) part of the core of the British Empire, certainly not the occupants of a periphery. Washington, if he were to rise to his potential heights, had to build a civil and American Washington. The colonists, if they were to build a new nation, had to build a civil and American polity.
Higginbotham carefully sketches the leadership ideals and analogs with which the revolutionaries had colonized their own minds. The colonists, soon to be self-identified as "Americans," thought in terms that favored the emergence of a sober, far-seeing, nationalist who could serve the role of both mentor and exemplar. In a nation steeped in the heroic views of a Voltaire or a Rousseau, of a Hume speculating about a future Solon or Lycurgus or, perhaps even more importantly, in a nation that had imbibed freely of Mosaic images and myths, a man, not necessarily "quick of speech or tongue," leading through diligence and humility, could resonate with both the high and the low (Ex, 4:10). From this reservoir of archetypal images, Washington, Higginbotham finds, drew a rich mix of good will and symbolism that authenticated his leadership of a people from their perceived bondage (p. 10-15).
At any point, of course, Washington could have seen his laurels wither. His great skill lay in his achievement in his middle age of the paradoxical exercise of relentlessness through moderation and circumspection. Persistent, adverse to all but the most considered risks, always respectful of duly constituted authority, and aware that he needed to be sensitive to people who had yet to share his growing vision of unity, Washington built an army and then a polity out of disparate, even antagonistic, societies. Avoiding any hint of Caesarism, Washington carefully maintained a reasoned deference to the Congress as the national authority, while working relentlessly to have the states and individuals recognize their ties to one another. Creating an army that was at core a national army and, to the best of his ability, sustaining a national congress, Washington then faced what could have been a shattering experience: peace. Higgenbotham presents Washington's "Sentiments on a Peace Establishment" and the "Circular to State Governments," both from 1783, to demonstrate Washington's post-war commitments to a centralized American state and his growing appreciation of what just such a state would need in order to succeed. (Both texts are presented in full in the appendices.)
Higginbotham traces the familiar path to the Constitution, Washington's role in surveying that path and the assessment by Washington's contemporaries of the importance of his commitment to the new document. Higginbotham's portrayal of Washington's importance, though, raises the question as to why scholarship on the constitutional process tends to mention Washington only briefly, very briefly, and then passes on quickly to social/cultural/geographic/ economic determinants and their intersection with constitutional history and thought. Higginbotham tantalizes us with quotes, from sources beyond the usual suspects, suggesting that Washington's own personal ratification of the Constitution legitimized the document in the eyes of many citizens. This makes sense. American citizens were, after all, real people interacting not just with an icon but with a very real figure who had possessed enormous significance for their own lives. Was there a more widely respected person in the Western world than Washington was in the 1790s? Napoleon, in a quote emphasized by Higginbotham, certainly seems to suggest that Washington was not only well-known, but had passed into myth in his own lifetime (p. 17-18). Is it possible that we, in our desire to locate the "groups," the "structures", the "interests" that resulted in the Constitution and its ratification, have perhaps ignored the driver and the horse and focused instead on the luggage in the carriage? Could it be that Washington, to mix in another metaphor, laid the foundation, pulled together the frame and put up the walls of the house to which schemers, cynics and idealists later added their sticks of furniture and thin layers of paint?
Higginbotham's recounting of "the Unifier as President" covers ground that has also been covered before, but here he adjusts the focus and isolates Washington the president, not Washington as surrounded by Jefferson and Hamilton and the recently anointed leaders of the American Congress. The author, for his purposes, quite rightly places Washington in the Executive Office surrounded by the troubling vista of a Republic clinging tenuously to life and to unity. The duties were Washington's, the obligations and the powers were Washington's, and the failure, had it occurred, would have been Washington's also. To reduce Washington to a leaf riding the wave of an elitist counter-revolution or to a puck batted about between Hamilton and Jefferson, in essence to diminish Washington to a figurehead, a mannequin, misses the essential point: he was acutely aware of the fact that, as in the Revolutionary War, it was his decision and his alone to do this instead of that. Higginbotham makes a case historians tend to emphasize less than they once did: Washington had the power to set in motion grand, even malignant, projects which would have overextended the Republic's resources or destroyed people's lives, tainting the American Revolution forever and leaving bitterness unending. Although Washington's gaze comprehended, therefore, a broad range of potential or actual threats to unity and concord, his methods had to be restricted to those which would produce a moderate and voluntary melding of the nation's differences. Raw force, without precipitating incident, would have proven the opponents of centralization correct.
Washington, Higginbotham emphasizes, had, therefore, to serve as a visible illustration, an education by object, of what the new government and nation should mean (p. 59-63). When faced with the very real possibility of the West departing to seek new protectors, Washington acted decisively to assure and protect the West, while, in the Whiskey Rebellion, he chose to remind Westerners that his greatest concern was for the nation as a whole. When faced with the threat that America could become an appendage of Europe by the simple process of becoming involved in the French Revolution and its conflicts, Washington strove to emphasize that he stood for America and America alone. When faced with the many openings available in a new government and the temptations such openings offered, Washington appointed those who would bind the union, and who would wish to bind the union, into a nation.
The book closes with reflections on how Washington, in all his roles, served as the core of the new nation. Stating that Washington's vision was not of crusades, but of a republican consolidation, Higginbotham finds that Washington's path was unique among revolutionaries and his role a role only he could have played; it was, in fact, a role that only he had the temperament and knowledge to have played (p. 84-85). Higginbotham continues his discussion of Washington as unifier and unifying symbol through Washington's final years as president, citing Washington's Farewell Address, but giving even greater emphasis to the projects of unification outlined by Washington in his Eighth Annual Message--a message which, as Higginbotham takes pains to indicate--demonstrates that Washington was "no slave to the elitism of the High Federalists" (p. 83). (Both the Farewell Address and the Eight Annual Message are contained in full in the appendices.)
Higginbotham's book stands as a reproach to those who wish to exclude individuals from history. Higginbotham speaks clearly and bluntly to those who discount the individual in history. The pernicious view held by various scholars that removes leaders from leadership proceeds in absolute disregard of the historical record. One can only ponder, and Higginbotham does, how very different and less mature the views of Hamilton and Jefferson were from Washington and, by reference of his focus on the individual, how differently the direction of the country would have been had either Hamilton or Jefferson been the first to acquire the Executive Office. Leaders make choices, and they, in one way or another, inspire others to follow those choices. Some leaders are dolts, fools, earnest mumblers or demagogues; others choose paths that are rational, fitting, wise, and demonstrate a sure grip on the future. As Higginbotham concludes: "No product of deterministic forces, [Washington] displayed, in his own unique way, the creativity of an intellectual giant" (p. 84). Sic simper tyrannis necessitis.
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Tim Blessing. Review of Higginbotham, Don, George Washington: Uniting a Nation.
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