PATRIARCH by Richard Norton Smith


George Washington and the New American Nation
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 An absorbing look at the first American presidency, in which Washington emerges not as the familiar George Stuart icon but as a fallible human being--one whose personal qualities nonetheless made him the quintessentially great man of American history. In focusing on the prosaic facts of Washington's presidency rather than on his better-known, and more heroic, Revolutionary War career, Smith (The Harvard Century, 1986, etc.) shows that the first President was not only the admirably self-sacrificing Cincinnatus of legend but a politically judicious statesman as well. The challenges facing the new President in 1790 (when Smith begins his account) were enormous: The young country lacked military power and political traditions, and it was financially impoverished, riven by ideological and sectional rancor (epitomized by the enmity between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasure Alexander Hamilton), and beset by hostile European powers and Indian tribes. Under these circumstances, Washington had to invent the Presidency, restore the nation's credit, and give the republic a measure of respect at home and abroad--all while avoiding involvement in Europe's turbulent politics. Although the first President, aided by vigorous and brilliant associates like Jefferson and Hamilton, succeeded in achieving these goals, his true greatness, Smith shows, lay in his resistance to the insidious enticements of power: ``By voluntarily relinquishing office at the end of two terms, Washington forced a world more accustomed to Caesar than Cincinnatus to revise its definition of greatness.'' Washington emerges here as vain, often humorless, and painfully reserved, but Smith demonstrates that this leader's qualities of wisdom and self-restraint helped give the new nation an enduring tradition of democratic government. A fine, highly readable, and nicely balanced account.

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1993
ISBN: 0-395-52442-3
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1992


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