Book #11 of the 2015 Reading Challenge – Mr. President: George Washington and the making of the nation’s highest office by Harlow Giles Unger

FullSizeRenderRead a book set in a different country.

Last month, I went to Washington D.C. It was my first visit to the US capital, where I spent 4 days immersed in history, culture and art – loving absolutely every moment of my visit. It was an interesting trip and one that I’d recommend to anyone who’s the least bit interested in American history and culture.

For me, it was interesting since I have a degree in English, part of which includes studies in American history. And you won’t find history like this anywhere else in the US – I dare say.

I’m actually not a history buff or someone who knows much about it (or remembers much from my time studying it). I just think it’s amazing to think about the fact that here’s a building, a monument or whatever that someone built hundreds of years ago to commemorate a person who lived hundreds of years ago or an event that took place hundreds of years ago. It makes you feel so small, so humble to think about the fact that what’s happening right now may be because of something that took place hundreds or thousands of years ago.

I went to a few of the Smithsonian museums (there are too many to visit in just 4 days!), including The National Museum of American History, which I thought was the most interesting of the four museums I visited.

I was standing in front of George Washington’s uniform, thinking about just how remarkable that moment was. I don’t think you have to be at all interested in history (okay, maybe just a little) to be able to appreciate that.

There I was looking at clothes that were more than 200 years old (and still in pretty good shape)…clothes that had been worn by the 1st President of the United States of America a man who lived in a time when the world was different, when there was no city of Washington D.C., when a trip to e.g. Philadelphia (the initial US capital) or to Federal Hall in New York City (where Washington was inaugurated) took days to reach by horse and carriage.

And then a snapped a photo of the uniform with my cell phone and posted it on my Facebook profile. Talk about a surreal moment in time!

I mean, just think about it. Today in the year 2015 you can go to a museum, look at person’s clothes or an object that was part of shaping not only a new nation and history but also the entire world. We are nothing if not our history, and things would look a lot different today if, for example, the French had succeeded in taking over and ruling America – which they tried to do.

There’s no doubt that George Washington was one of the great men in US history (right?). Everything kind of started with him after the independence was declared from the British and America was born. Everything was so new and must have been so strange back then. How do you form an entirely new nation and bring people together to agree on things – preferably in a peaceful manner? How do you decide who gets to decide what, where and when? If anything goes, does anything go?

Well, after having read Unger’s book, which is brilliant, it’s pretty obvious that nothing came about peacefully back then. In fact, the early years of the new Republic were kind of a mess, and the only one who seemed to hold everything together was George Washington.

The book takes you back to when it all began and the presidency was brand new, so new that nobody really knew what they were doing.

There was a brand new President (elected unanimously) and Vice President (John Adams) who had great ideas and goals for the new nation but who were both frustrated, because they weren’t allowed to do anything.

“My country,” John Adams barked, “has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” (Page 7)

He was furious.

“George Washington, however, was even more furious. Having slain the British lion, he had won election unanimously as the new nation’s first president and had even less to do than the vice president.” (Page 7)

“The Vice President presided over the Senate (…). Washington, on the other hand, presided over no one but himself, sitting alone at his empty desk each day, staring at walls or out the windows of an otherwise empty office. He was a man of action – a superb horseman, hunter, and soldier who spurred his huge steed over tall fences in the chase, dodged arrows and bullets in battle. Now he sat at an empty desk, idle, bored. Having answered every letter, he stared at the walls, wondering how to spend the rest of the day.” (Page 9)

Washington was a great man, a hero that had freed the nation from the tyrannical rule of the British. He was a tall, wealthy, soft-spoken farmer from Virginia who had become worn down from the war and wanted nothing more throughout his entire presidency than to retire to his beloved Mount Vernon so he could ride his horse and otherwise sit peacefully under a tree.

He loved the battlefield more than the political field, which, from the quote above, was no wonder, and above everything else he loved family life. He longed for retirement almost as soon as he’d taken office.

“Washington did not want to leave what seemed an idyllic life – and Martha (his wife) didn’t want him to leave, insisting he was too old to assume the presidency.” (Page 59)

Too old and perhaps too frail as “his physical condition had deteriorated again: his false teeth made it difficult – and painful – for him to speak and eat in public, and his arthritis had become so painful that he had partially immobilized one of his arms in a sling” (page 58).

What’s astonishing is that Washington didn’t even want to become president, but perhaps he didn’t see any other alternative if the nation was to succeed. He was so reluctant, in fact that he wrote:

“So unwilling am I, in the evening of a life…to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties. I can assure you…that my movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” (Page 60)

He did a lot of things during his 2 terms as president. He succeeded at some, and he failed at others. He had loyal people among his staff, and he had people who turned against him and who fought with each other (e.g. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton).

“Washington’s major failure as President, however, was, by his own admission, his inability to unite Americans and convince them all to embrace the nation as ‘my country’.” (Page 222)

After having completed 2 terms as president, he was finally ready to retire in 1797.

They couldn’t leave the man alone, though. A year later trouble with the French were rising to a critical point, and the new president, John Adams, called on Washington and his expertise to lead the nation in war. George Washington responded by donning his uniform once again (must to his wife Martha’s discontent) and breaking his promise to his wife of never returning to the public life.

That was in November and the following month would be his last.

“On December 12 – a cloudy morning – he set out on his usual ride. ‘About 1 o’clock it began to snow,’ he noted in his diary, ‘soon after to hail and then turned to cold rain. Mercury 28 at night.”

“Tobias Lear (Washington’s colonel) recalled that day in his journal: ‘When he came in…I observed to him that I was afraid he had got wet, he said no…He came to dinner without changing his dress.’ (…) He was sicker the following morning, worsened during the day and night, and died the following day despite of – or because of – ministrations by four doctors, who left him dehydrated and in hemorrhagic shock after extracting eighty-two ounces, or more than five pints of blood. When no more blood would flow, they fed him a mercurous chloride purgative and a tartar emetic – both known to be poisonous – that ensured his immediate death.

George Washington died just after 10 on the evening of December 16, 1799. (Page 232)

I haven’t read a book like this since my days as a university student, but I think it’s nice pick up something that isn’t straightforward fiction – just every now and then. Apart from entertaining us, books are here to teach us things about any and every imaginable area of life – then and now. It would be good for us to read a diversity of books on different subjects to keep learning and to keep expanding our understanding of the world and perhaps our own place in it.


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