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by Richard Brookhiser

Pub Date: May 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-465-00302-0
Publisher: Basic

From a journalist and historian specializing in the lives of the Founders, lessons in leadership drawn from the plantation, military and political career of George Washington.

Washington’s colorful contemporary, Gouverneur Morris, disparaged books on leadership, dismissing them as merely “utopian,” a skepticism National Review senior editor Brookhiser (What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers, 2006, etc.) appears to share. But the author forges ahead, addressing his theme in topical fashion, distilling a series of maxims from a variety of problems and situations Washington handled. The vignettes are always interesting: Washington insisting on the importance of proper latrines and inoculations to ensure the army’s health, diversifying crops at Mount Vernon, finessing the Continental Congress, putting down mutiny within the army and later rebellion within the young country, keeping the peace between Hamilton and Jefferson, dealing with the betrayal of Benedict Arnold. At the same time the “lessons” drawn from these and many other slices of Washington’s life are problematic, if only because they are so often contradictory. Washington observed lines of authority (deferring to the advice and consent of the Senate), except when he circumvented them (seeking funding for the army). He was patient (settling on a strategy for the war), except when he was bold (seizing the moment at Yorktown). He was a hands-on manager (of his plantation), unless he was wisely delegating (speeches to Madison, artillery chores to Knox or matters of high finance to Hamilton). He made use of friends (Lafayette) until he broke with them (Knox). By the end of Brookhiser’s colloquial, good-humored analysis, we’re persuaded that, while no leader in American history may be more worthy of emulation, the mature Washington’s signal virtue was his consistently sound, often spectacularly wise judgment, a faculty honed throughout a lifetime presiding over highly important matters and one not easily imitated. Apparently Gouverneur Morris was correct.

Unexceptional wisdom breezily packaged.