George Washington: a so-so general, at least at the start; a capable politician, even if he didn’t particularly enjoy pressing the flesh.
But a great president? This slender volume in Arthur Schlesinger’s American Presidents series, by political historian Burns (Dead Center, 1999, etc.) and revolutionary-era historian Dunn (Sister Revolutions, 1999), hints that some of Washington’s renown in that department has to do only with his being the first in the job. Yet, they add, Washington did much in office to recast the role of the chief executive as the energetic center of government, to the discomfort of contemporaries who believed that therein lay the road to kingship; his model posited “vigorous executive leadership, a flexible and resourceful administration, presidential rather than party leadership—a model that overrode the checks and balances without blatantly violating the spirit of the Constitution but that threatened to pulverize the opposition.” Other presidents have followed Washington’s lead to a fault, raising “formidable threats of excessive presidential power, as in the cases of a Lyndon B. Johnson and a George W. Bush,” but his legacy has largely been modified by the evolution of a two-party system that requires a little more teamwork on the president’s part. Burns and Dunn capably chart the course of Washington’s presidency, examining what they consider to be his successes (including the reshaping of the constitutional balance of powers) and failures (among them the polarization wrought by the Jay Treaty, which “left much that was precious to Washington—national unity, the common good, his own reputation—in tatters”). In the end, they fault him only gently for occasional missteps in office, notably his failure to act to hasten the end of slavery.
A great president, then, if with a few blemishes. Good reading for students of the office and the time.