George Washington retired from public life at the end of his second presidential term on March 4, 1797. Twenty months and ten days later he died on December 14, 1799. In between Washington was also the first in the United States to be a former president, first to deal with securing his legacy as both a military hero and political figure, and having to see the country he sacrificed so much to create, lurch forward without him having an active part in it.
Until now, these years have been either excluded, glossed over, or an anti-climatic ending to a Washington biography. Until now. Joseph Horn, a former presidential speechwriter and the author of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington lends his talent to a new biography of Washington, examining those last few years in-depth.
The author has a valid point when he argues that, “for too long, the story of Washington’s last years has been squeezed into the margins of manuscripts, if included at all” (pg. 14). Channeling the method of famed Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, Horn writes this biography in the “fog of war” style that affords the reader the opportunity to read the history “through the eyes of those who made it rather than through the hindsight of historians” (pg. 14).
With that in mind that can serve either as a positive or negative. Positive is that the reader can reach their own conclusions about what the last two years of Washington’s life concluded on his legacy, his defining role in United States history, and how it all intertwined. The negative, is that Horn’s opinion and moving the history along is not as well inserted and thus can not be used in the historiography of Washington by historians.
This style though, is where the true value of Horn’s history unfolds. The reader will see Washington through this “fog of war” prism, as the man slowly gives way to the name; the name of the city and the name used to as a party affiliation. Washington’s aim is to enjoy retirement but is continually persuaded, pulled into, or goaded to take an active part in the country that he sacrificed years of his life for.
Out of this history also comes a simple fact that Washington biographers can struggle with; the fact that Washington was human. Seems a ridiculous issue to mention but so much of Washington has come down through history as lore, fantasy, and myth, that the man can often become obscured. The last two years of Washington’s life is a glimpse of a man trying to set a precedent, ex-president, retired national icon, yet also very interested in seeing the federal system work. This includes the movement of the capital, allowing his successor, John Adams to lead the country, the continued machinations of Alexander Hamilton, and the widening split with fellow Virginians in political beliefs.
In addition, the familial concerns that the Virginian dealt with also occupied his last years. From corralling the wayward grandson, Wash (short for George Washington Parke Custis), the granddaughter affectionately nicknamed Nelly who was coming of marriageable age during the latter 18th century, and dealing with the death of his last remaining siblings; younger sister Betty and brother Charles. Through this all was the constant companion Martha, his wife of almost forty-years and what retirement would be like for them, together and separately.
No better concluding thought for a book review that summarizes this history can be found than what source Horn’s concludes his book with. The words come from Abigail Adams, wife of the second president of the United States and rightfully considered an unofficial adviser to her husband John for many years. Writing her thoughts on the idea of an obelisk as the monument design for George Washington, she “feared” that the monument would “cast into a shade” the actual human being he was (pg. 225). Yes, the last years of Washington’s life were in “shade” but thanks to Horn, we now have a history that illuminates the twenty months and ten days that Washington lived after “retirement” from public life. Effectively capping the closing years of one of America’s Founding Fathers.
Publisher & publication date: Scribner, part of Simon & Schuster Publishing, February 2020
Pages: 331, including maps, images, and notes