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From Edmund S. Morgan, today's preeminent colonial historian, this latest, very slim book is a disappointment. But even as one reads, one wonders what Morgan is on to--and where it will take him hereafter. His theme--laid out in a single 22-page essay and illustrated by a 60-page annotated selection of Washington letters, 1755-1797--is that Washington's special ""genius"" lay in an ""understanding of power. . . unmatched by any of his contemporaries."" He possessed, Morgan goes on to explain, a natural ability to lead but learned very early on that he must also conduct himself as a leader; he was no military theoretician but he did demonstrate a special feel for the movement and disposition of his troops on the battlefield; he argued patiently and cogently that the fate of the republic, politically and economically as well as militarily, depended upon the creation of a permanent army; he perceived earlier than most the need to replace the Articles of Confederation with an effective central government; and during his Presidency, while other men were losing their heads over the great issues of American foreign policy, he kept his because he knew how the game of international politics was played, and to what end. Morgan develops all this with the deftness and good sense that have distinguished his work for some three decades, and he is almost convincing. The trouble is that one short essay and a few handfuls of letters make too flimsy a foundation for such an original argument. Important issues go unanswered (how did Washington acquire his understanding of power? what is ""power,"" anyway?); and no attention is given to the fact that most historians nowadays tend to regard Washington rather differently--as a bit of a plodder, a man to be appreciated for the dogged determination with which he kept the American Army going, notwithstanding its adversities, yet hardly a brilliant general or a sophisticated statesman. Presumably Morgan will have more to say on the subject. This is tantalizing, if perfunctory.

Pub Date: April 13th, 1981
ISBN: 0393000605
Publisher: Norton