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  • The Restoration of George Washington
  • Stephen B. Presser (bio)
Richard Brookhiser. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. New York: Free Press, 1996. 230 pp. Notes and index. $25.00.
Glenn A. Phelps. George Washington and American Constitutionalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993. x + 245 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $14.95 (paper).

These two fine books expose a paradox in the academy. It is hard to imagine anything more politically incorrect than the “Founding Fathers,” as we used to call them. The most important issues of interest in academia are questions concerning race, ethnicity, and gender, and in particular how to accomplish the redistribution of wealth, the promotion of multiculturalism, and the securing of democracy. The Founders (to use the more neutral term) were all relatively wealthy, Protestant Christian white males, who supported or accommodated slavery and established federal, state, and local governments that, if they did not actually advertise themselves as patriarchies, nevertheless deprived women of the vote, of legal personality, and of significant participation in civic affairs. Alexander Hamilton strove mightily to fashion a federal government that would link the richest and most influential Americans with the interests of the nation, and clearly favored aristocracy over democracy. 1 Thomas Jefferson, who was probably the closest thing we actually had to a democrat in the late eighteenth century, has lately been under fire for viewing blacks as degraded and for never freeing his own slaves. 2 James Madison, while occasionally (and probably wrongly) invoked as a forerunner of American pluralism, like Hamilton, was no friend to unbridled democracy and a life-long enemy of faction. 3

But out of current fashion as the views, gender, religion, or race of these Founders may be, they and their era still exert a seductive fascination that has resulted in more scholarly attention being focused on the late eighteenth century than on any other period in American history, with the latest evidence being the award of the Pulitzer prize in history to Jack Rakove for his examination of the politics of the framing of the Constitution. 4 True, the recent spate of books owes something to the celebration of the Bicentennial of the [End Page 545] Revolution and the Constitution, but more is involved than just an important anniversary. We still hear occasional dismissals of the worship of the Constitution on the theory that that document was framed by (slaveholding) people essentially different from us. 5 The patriotism and piety of the Founding Era cannot easily be found reflected in the modern academy. For example, while 80 percent of the American public favor a constitutional amendment to protect the flag of the United States from desecration, probably 99 percent of the American academy regard the amendment as a blatant attack on freedom of speech, and a dagger struck at the Bill of Rights. 6 At a deeper level, though, there appears to be a perception that the project of the Founders bore some similarity to ours, and that their struggle to solve the problems of political science is the same in which we are engaged. After all, what they wanted was a government based on the sovereignty of the people, yet they were still committed to principles of justice and the rule of law. Even the most politically correct among us wants something essentially similar.

Is there, then, still something study of the Founding generation can teach us? The authors of these two books think so, although one is a bit more blatant than the other. One stresses the way in which its subject, though admirably virtuous, differed dramatically from what is acceptable today, and the other offers the same virtuous subject as a model fit for our immediate emulation. The surprise here is that the subject, George Washington, has rarely been regarded as anything more than superficially significant by most American scholars. Unlike Hamilton, Madison, or Jefferson, Washington was not noted for the sophistication of his political thought, and his education involved none of the undergraduate experience that Hamilton received at King’s College (now Columbia), Madison got at Princeton, and Jefferson secured at William and Mary. While Hamilton and Jefferson trained also as lawyers and Madison devoted himself to the nuances...

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pp. 545-552
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