The Political Philosophy of George Washington. By Jeffry H. Morrison. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 226 pp.
A flippant reaction to the title of Jeffry Morrison's book: George Washington had a political philosophy? Many people regard Washington as merely the vessel for the ideas of the nation's more intellectual founders. In this version, Washington made his mark not as a thinker but as a man of action and as a symbol of the nation's founding. Confronting this myth (and many others) stands as one of the great contributions Morrison's highly readable and, at times, elegant, book makes in exploring the thoughts of our best known and most enigmatic founder. Published as part of the Political Philosophy of the American Founders series and earning its place alongside books about Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, Morrison successfully demonstrates the substance behind the Washingtonian symbol. Morrison falls short, perhaps, only in his failure to tell us how these ideas influenced Washington's policies or the republic's emerging political culture.
Morrison organizes his book around the three intellectual strands that he sees comprising Washington's political philosophy: classical republicanism; British liberal tradition; and Protestant Christianity and Providence, devoting a chapter to each one. Morrison also offers a chapter outlining Washington's biography, beginning with his birth to a lower gentry Virginia family and continuing through his two-term presidency. Although perhaps useful to the general reader, this biographical section covers familiar ground and, at times, vacillates between a cursory overview and overly bold claims. In an impressive feat of historical legerdemain, Morrison connects Washington's experiences as a surveyor in 1749 to his three-pronged plan, 40 years later, to appoint Hamilton as his secretary of treasury, support a national bank, and back Hamilton's assumption plan. (p. 29). The biographical section has a rushed, tacked-on quality; it might have been more effective had Washington's story been integrated into his political philosophy.
The heart and soul of Morrison's book are the three chapters discussing the ideas that formed the basis of Washington's political philosophy, with the chapter on classical republicanism offering the most compelling and substantive case. Any reader familiar with Gordon Wood's research knows that classical republicanism provided much of the ideas and structure for what...