A premier leadership scholar and an eighteenth-century expert define the special contributions and qualifications of our first president
Revolutionary hero, founding president, and first citizen of the young republic, George Washington was the most illustrious public man of his time, a man whose image today is the result of the careful grooming of his public persona to include the themes of character, self-sacrifice, and destiny.
As Washington sought to interpret the Constitution's assignment of powers to the executive branch and to establish precedent for future leaders, he relied on his key advisers and looked to form consensus as the guiding principle of government. His is a legacy of a successful experiment in collective leadership, great initiatives in establishing a strong executive branch, and the formulation of innovative and lasting economic and foreign policies. James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn also trace the arc of Washington's increasing dissatisfaction with public life and the seeds of dissent and political parties that, ironically, grew from his insistence on consensus. In this compelling and balanced biography, Burns and Dunn give us a rich portrait of the man behind the carefully crafted mythology.
About the Author
James MacGregor Burns was the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Williams College and a senior scholar at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. He was the author of numerous books, including Transforming Leadership, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.
Susan Dunn is a professor of literature at Williams College and is the author of many books, including The Three Roosevelts (with James MacGregor Burns). She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007) was the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he was a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He won two Pulitzer prizes for The Age of Jackson (1946) and A Thousand Days (1966), and in 1988 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.
Read an Excerpt
By James MacGregor Burns, Susan Dunn, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn
All rights reserved.
"Let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave." "Wear not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty." "When Another speaks be attentive your Self." "Reprehend not the imperfections of others for that belongs to Parents Masters and Superiours." In 1747, an eager and ambitious George Washington, at the green age of fifteen, was already concentrating on making his way in the world. Meticulously, he copied a list of 110 exacting rules of conduct and civility from the English translation of a French seventeenth-century manual on good manners, the equivalent of a modern self-help book, a kind of How to Be a Gentleman in One Hundred and Ten Easy Lessons. Unlike many other seventeenth-century French maxims, these contained few penetrating psychological insights. But they taught that there was little difference between moral qualities and social ones; they explained that one lived one's life among others, and that, to be successful in society, one must be polite, modest, pleasing, and attentive to others; one must strive to win their confidence and respect. They gave instructions on how to behave with men of greater rank and how to balance deference to the mighty with one's own dignity and ambition.
"Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation." "In company of those of Higher Quality than yourself Speak not till you are ask'd a Question." "Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty." "Contradict not at every turn what others Say." Many of these rules of conduct would serve and steady Washington for the rest of his life — and he would pass on their wisdom to others. "Offer your sentiments with modest diffidence — opinions thus given are listened to with more attention than when delivered in a dictatorial stile," he would write to his nephew in 1787.
The young Washington also turned his attention to men's fashion: he designed a new coat for himself, specifying for the tailor such features as the width of the lapels and the placement of all twelve buttons. "First impressions are generally the most lasting," Washington would write more than forty years later to another nephew, advising the young man that, if he wished "to make any figure upon the stage," it was absolutely necessary to "take the first steps right." Washington's letter of advice contained one line on the acquisition of knowledge, one on moral virtues, one on economy and frugality, twelve on choosing well one's friends, and thirty-four on clothing.
Manners and appearance mattered intensely to the adolescent Washington, for his half brother Lawrence had just introduced him to a dazzling, refined, sophisticated world on the Potomac. His eyes lit up when he entered the manor houses of Virginia's upper class, glimpsing the elegant furnishings, hearing the soft-spoken pleasantries of their fashionable inhabitants.
He relished the weeks he was permitted to spend at Lawrence's home, called Mount Vernon, and at Belvoir, the neighboring estate of the Fairfax family into which Lawrence had married. George came to know well Lawrence's brother-in-law, George William Fairfax, and was captivated by his young wife, Sally. The Fairfaxes, like Virginia's other elite, influential families, lived at the pinnacle of Virginia society. Colonel William Fairfax of Belvoir, George William's father, one of the twelve gentlemen who sat on the royal governor's Council of State, was a cousin of Lord Fairfax, peer of the realm, who had been granted title to over 5 million acres of land in Virginia. The colony's political life was transacted on plantations like Belvoir, not in the small towns. In 1760, Virginia had a population of about 173,000 whites and 120,000 slaves, but only a thousand people lived in the capital, Williamsburg, and probably no more than three hundred in Richmond.
Lawrence had become George's mentor and role model. Fourteen years older than George, he had been educated in England and had already served as an officer in an American regiment of the British army, become the adjutant general of the Virginia militia, and won election to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Their father, Augustine Washington, a speculator in land, was third-generation American, the owner of more than ten thousand acres of Virginia land, fifty slaves, and an iron mine. Still, the Washingtons were not one of the distinguished, powerful families of the day, who might well have owned ten times that amount of land. At Ferry Farm, where Augustine lived in a modest home with his second wife, Mary Ball, and their five children, young George learned reading, writing, and mathematics, occasionally venturing across the Rappahannock River to the raw little town of Fredericksburg. He did not attend college and for the rest of his life would be conscious of what he termed his "defective education."
On April 12, 1743, when George was eleven, his father died. (The following day, less than a hundred miles away, a baby named Thomas Jefferson was born.) Augustine's two sons from his first marriage inherited most of his land. George would inherit, at age twenty-one, Ferry Farm, two thousand acres, three lots in Fredericksburg, and ten slaves. But more important, after his father's death, George visited more often with Lawrence and the Fairfaxes. Decades later Washington would recall times spent at Belvoir as "the happiest moments of my life."
Mount Vernon and Belvoir: magical kingdoms, the gracious world of Virginia gentlemen-planters, their well-educated, polished sons, their lively daughters. On their estates, they lived "nobly," observed one visitor from France, the Marquis de Chastellux. They dined well; they conversed knowledgeably and interestingly about a wide variety of subjects; they knew and enjoyed the dances of the day. His shrewd intelligence mobilized, George observed them intently. "It is in their power," he wrote to his younger brother, "to be very serviceable upon many occasion's to us, as young beginner's."
* * *
The price of membership in the small club of Virginia's prestigious families was land. Mere money "will melt like Snow before a hot Sun," Washington would later write, explaining that "lands are permanent, rising fast in value." As a teenager, he studied the techniques of surveying — the necessary prelude to the acquisition and development of land — and, in 1748, joined George William Fairfax and others mapping out land in the Shenandoah Valley. Acutely conscious of class distinctions, he looked down upon the poor settlers he encountered there, hating the time he had to spend with a "parcel of Barbarian's." The following year he helped survey lots in the newly established town of Alexandria and was appointed county surveyor in Culpeper County. Paid in cash for his work, he made his first purchases of land. By the age of eighteen he had already bought fifteen hundred acres in Virginia.
And yet not even landed wealth was sufficient for membership in the in-group. There was more. Standing over six feet tall, with his reddish hair, it was hard not to notice Washington, and yet it was notice — not just mere visibility but more, that is, the regard and the esteem of others — that he craved most. Success, Washington would emphasize years later to his nephew, depended on how one appeared "in the eyes of judicious men." He began the quest for notice by following in his brother Lawrence's footsteps and entering a career in the military: he traveled to Williamsburg, met with the governor, Robert Dinwiddie, and requested a post in the Virginia militia. George's connection with Colonel Fairfax proved especially helpful. Captivated by the serious, deferential, ambitious young man, Dinwiddie soon complied.
Dinwiddie appointed Major Washington the messenger who would travel into the Ohio country to give an ultimatum to French troops. In the mid-1750s, Britain and France were fighting over control of North America; Versailles had dispatched troops south of Lake Erie to seize control of the vast Ohio country northwest of Virginia. London ordered its Virginia troops to drive the French off "by Force of Arms." It was Washington's mission to find the French position in the wilderness and present the French with a choice: withdraw from the land that Britain claimed or face Virginia troops.
When the French commander rejected the ultimatum, Washington made the arduous trip home and was soon appointed lieutenant colonel in charge of a small force of fewer than two hundred Virginians to confront the French enemy. Although his troops were as untrained in war as he was, he boldly sortied out, in spring 1754, to face a French force of at least a thousand men, aided by large numbers of Indians. Making their way through the thick, trackless forest, led by Indian guides, Washington and his men came upon a small French troop and carried out a surprise attack, only to discover that one of the Frenchmen they killed was an envoy on a mission similar to Washington's earlier one, to warn the British off French land. The shots Washington's men fired marked the start of the French and Indian War.
Washington and his troops proceeded to build a flimsy stockade they called "Fort Necessity." In early July, after indecisive skirmishes, the arrival of fewer reinforcements than he had hoped for, and illness and deep fatigue, Washington and his soldiers were suddenly assaulted in their poorly located fort by nearly a thousand Frenchmen. Washington was resolute in defense, but pinned within the stockade walls, hopelessly overwhelmed, he had little opportunity for generalship. Within hours he lost a third of his troops, dead or wounded. Offered reasonable terms, the young colonel surrendered.
Washington returned to Virginia a defeated man — even more, a bungler who had been at times overly daring and at times indecisive, and who had been unable to enlist Indians to offset the French advantage. He might have had "courage and resolution," General Lord Albemarle, the British ambassador to France, commented, but he simply had "no knowledge or experience in our profession." And yet, miraculously, the twenty-two-year-old soldier was greeted back home by fellow Virginians as something of a hero, if only for his determination and valor under fire. He allowed others to take the burden of blame for the defeat.
After a year's respite from the army, Washington missed the soldier's life and decided once again to join the military, first as a volunteer aide to General Edward Braddock, alongside whom he fought heroically, then, in the fall of 1755 — after much negotiation — as commander of the Virginia regiment. To have refused the appointment, he told his mother, who disapproved of his return to military service, would have cast "eternal dishonour" upon him. War between England and France was officially declared in 1756, after which most of the battles would take place farther north. In 1758, Washington's final mission — to seize Fort Duquesne from the French — would end successfully, without a shot. The French had retreated, leaving their fort in flames.
If the whole episode of Washington's five-year military career told something of his limitations, it blazoned forth a crucial aspect of the young colonel in his early twenties — his ever-present ambition.
During his years in the military, Washington had been engaged in two parallel campaigns: one was for military victory, the other was for notice. "The chief part of my happiness," he candidly admitted, was "the esteem and notice" of his country. People could hardly ignore the striking uniforms he had designed and ordered for himself and his troops — blue coats with scarlet and silver cuffs, red waistbands, and hats embellished with silver trim. But the notice he sought required more than cultivated appearance. To win the respect of his social and professional superiors, he would also have to cultivate his own reputation and honor. He longed for evidence that society's leaders held him in higher esteem than the "common run of provincial officers." Even the official statement of gratitude that he and his troops received from the House of Burgesses in 1754 was not sufficient.
So began his quest for a royal commission in the regular British army, a long journey on horseback to Boston to meet with the acting commander in chief of British forces in America. With an aide and two servants, he left his troops behind and rode off in February 1756, a knight in blue uniform on a quest for his holy grail. Through Maryland and Delaware, across rivers and meadows, to Philadelphia — his first experience of a city and all its diversions. Then on through New Jersey to New York and yet another taste of sophisticated, urban life. Then off to Boston, where a local newspaper reported the arrival of "a gentleman who had deservedly a high reputation for military skill and valor, though success has not always attended his undertakings." The reward for his lengthy voyage and absence of two months? No royal commission was forthcoming. A year later, he went off again on the same errand, now to Philadelphia. Again in vain.
Why the preoccupation — no, the obsession — with rank? Washington himself gave serious thought to this question. Later, as commander in chief of the revolutionary army, he would insightfully explain that whereas the revolutionary forces were fighting for "all that is dear and valuable in Life," the Virginia regiment in the 1750s had been engaged solely in "the usual contest of Empire and Ambition." In those kinds of contests in which fighting men were mere pawns, he remarked, the "conscience of a soldier" had so little at stake that he could "properly insist upon his claims of Rank, and extend his pretentions even to Punctilio." In other words, the ultimate prize of French-English conflict was of so little moral worth, so tangential to the "general Interest" of society, that an officer could rightly be concerned with his own "smaller and partial considerations."
Neither Washington's military campaigns nor his campaign for rank had ended in dazzling success. And yet, by 1758, he was no longer simply a "beginner," as he had written earlier to his brother. He had served as a military leader, been warmly praised by his officers, feted by prominent families in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. But still no royal commission.
* * *
Wouldn't it be less frustrating to return to Mount Vernon, which he had been renting from Lawrence's widow since his death in 1752, marry well, begin his own family, and join the landed gentry and governing class of Virginia? Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy young widow, struck Washington as an "agreeable Consort." "Love is too dainty a food to live on alone," he would counsel his step-granddaughter years later. The marital partner, he explained to her, should possess good sense, a good disposition, a good reputation, and financial means. To their marriage Martha brought six thousand acres, one hundred slaves, and her two children. For their wedding, Washington ordered his clothes from London. "Would Washington have ever been commander of the revolutionary army or president of the United States, if he had not married the rich widow of Mr. Custis?" asked John Adams, whose own wife was so crucial to his career and happiness.
It was 1759. He was twenty-seven, had just resigned from the military, in which he would not serve again for sixteen years, and had, a few months earlier, won a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Though he had been determined to win the race, he did not solicit votes and, despite the urging of his friends, did not even show his face on Election Day. Still, he spent £40 on his campaign — which consisted mostly of dances, barbecues, and, on Election Day alone, 160 gallons of rum, wine, beer, and punch for the 390 voters. At the first session he attended as a young legislator, the burgesses expressed their official gratitude for "his faithful services to His Majesty and this Colony, and for his brave and steady behavior." Washington rose and bowed, blushing with pleasure.
In the House of Burgesses he mostly listened, intent on absorbing the new protocol of politics. During the ten weeks a year when the burgesses were in session, George and Martha enjoyed the social life in Williamsburg, attending dinner parties and balls. Back home at Mount Vernon, which he inherited in 1761, he worked at making himself indispensable to the community, serving as a vestryman in Truro Parish, trustee of the town of Alexandria, and justice of the county court. With an acute sense of responsibility to others combined with a desire to win their respect, he devoted much of his time to writing letters, settling accounts, acting as executor for the estates of his friends and acquaintances.
Excerpted from George Washington by James MacGregor Burns, Susan Dunn, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.. Copyright © 2004 James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
1. Fierce Ambition,
2. The Education of a Soldier,
3. "Radical Cures",
4. The Grand Experiment Begins,
5. The Transformation,
6. The Deepening Chasm,
7. The Wider World,
8. The Curtain Falls,
9. Collective Leadership: Remaking the Constitution,
Epilogue: Moral Leadership: The Mixed Legacy,
Sources and Notes,
Also by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn,
The American Presidents Series,
About the Authors,