Saturday, December 22, 2007

Book Review: "George Washington" by James Burns and Susan Dunn

This installment of the American Presidents Series features our first president, and is also the only one in the series (so far) to be co-authored. (Click here for a review of the biography of John Adams, and click here for the review of Andrew Jackson's biography.) The thesis of the book is that Washington's greatest achievement is the way he shaped the presidency and consolidated executive power.

Although the book is biographical, the book focuses, not surprisingly, on George Washington's shaping of the presidency itself. As the first president, and as the hero of a nation, Washington had the power and influence to shape the presidency in many ways—and he did. Where the Constitution did not "seem" to grant the president a lot of power (prevailing thought back then vested much of the power in legislative bodies), Washington used it to the full extent he could, while still being very respectful of his constitutional limits. The book is generally complementary on his presidential service, and why not? He was a fine president, and did a commendable job. It also speaks highly of his overlooked brilliance at selecting a first-rate cabinet.

The authors apparently felt obliged to take an almost-gratuitous politically-correct jab at Washington for being a slaveowner, and also minimize the influence of religion on Washington's life. The epilogue also seems to give a lower regard (than most people have, or than I think he should) for his moral legacy. Despite these weaknesses, the book does an overall good job of portraying President Washington as president, and can be recommended as a useful perspective on his life and presidency.

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