Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book review: First in Peace by Conor Cruise O'Brien

George Washington is without question the most prominent figure in American history.  During the founding period he was widely acknowledged to be the "indispensable man," the man without whom the Revolution and the Constitution would in all likelihood collapsed.  He set the customs and tradition for the presidency - customs and traditions that are followed to this day.  By his example and by his carefully cultivated public personae, Washington led Americans first to independence and then to stable government.  He truly deserves the title "Father of Our Country."

In recent years, two of the best short biographies of this titanic figure of American history have been written by non-Americans.  The first is by English historian Paul Johnson, George Washington:  The Founding Father.   The second is by Irish diplomat and political theorist Conor Cruise O'Brien, First in Peace.  O'Brien, one of the great lights of historical writing before his passing in 2008, has written two previous must-read studies of other towering 18th century figures:  Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson.   O Brien's book on Jefferson is widely regarded as one of the most systematic deconstructions of the myths surrounding the Sage of Montecello ever written. 

In his book on Washington - his last work - O'Brien seeks to explain Washington's terms as president and the effect they had on the course of the country once his terms were over.  The book is short - 148 pages excluding index, notes and foreword (written by Christopher Hitchens) - yet despite its brevity, the book provides an insightful and detailed overview of its topic.  O'Brien understands the characters of the time, and his distance as an Irishman from the natural affinity an American might have for our founding fathers provides him with a perspective unclouded by emotional attachment.

O'Brien divides his work into two sections, one for each term that Washington served as president.   The common thread that binds Washington's two terms together, in O'Brien's telling, is the crisis in stability caused by the French Revolution.  This crisis in stability rocked not only the European world, but also the New World as well, with French agents and their sympathizers attempting to anchor the young American republic firmly within the orbit of Revolutionary France.  Much if not most of Washington's energy was devoted to thwarting this attempt to place the Union in a subordinate condition to the France, and his increasing reliance on Hamilton throughout his administration was due in large part to Hamilton's clear-eyed understanding of the danger that the French Revolution posed to stable and independent government in America.

Thomas Jefferson definitely comes across as untrustworthy and duplicitous in O'Brien's account.  Scheming with his cohorts to bolster the influence of France, consumed with hatred for the British, disdainful of Washington and contemptuous of Hamilton, Jefferson's fundamental character flaws are highlighted in this book.  Washington's growing suspicion of Jefferson -- his "lack of confidence" as O'Brien puts it -- builds as our first president slowly begins to realize that Jefferson is not simply voicing opposition to Washington's policies in cabinet, but that Jefferson is actively attempting to shape public opinion and official government policy against Washington's own policies.  Eventually Jefferson resigns his post as secretary of state and leaves government, brooding in Montecello and working with Madison to form the first organized political party in our nation's history -- via the "Democratic-Republican clubs." 

The Genet affair, the Jay Treaty, the difficult diplomatic relationship with Revolutionary France, Washington's reluctant decision to run for a second term, the Whiskey Rebellion, are all given a new perspective by O'Brien's reading of the underlying political turmoil within Washington's administration and our young country.   While this turmoil is resolved within the administration with Jefferson's departure, it is not resolved within the nation as a whole. 

As the Democratic-Republican clubs become active centers of direct opposition to Washington's policies, Washington began a carefully crafted endeavor to limited their influence.  He denounced the clubs, referring to them as "self-created societies" - a term which O'Brien notes had the effect of "discrediting the societies as unpatriotic."  Washington linked the clubs with the just terminated Whiskey Rebellion, doing tremendous damage to the incipient Jeffersonian party, damage that was so great that O'Brien characterizes it as a "demolition." 

American views towards the French Revolution began to shift as a consequence, even more so after Washington maneuvered the Jay Treaty through passage in the Senate.  While pro-French opinion-makers railed against Washington as a result, and Jefferson and Washington fell into an icy silence, Washington began improving the American relationship with Great Britain, all in an effort to ensure that American foreign relations would be balanced, preserving American independence and preventing the subversion of the Union to the side of any one European power.  By the end of his administration, the relationship with the British was on a solid footing, and with Hamilton's assistance, Washington prepared his famous Farewell Address. 

O'Brien's book is a delightfully written and insightful final work by a great historian and statesman.  His insights about the deep impact felt in the fledgling American republic over the French Revolution are well-supported both by primary source documentation and by the work of subsequent historians amply quoted by O'Brien.  The book is well worth a read. 

2 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exc, Mark, and thx.

Here's O'Brien's famous takedown of Jefferson in a condensed essay:

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/issues/96oct/obrien/obrien.htm

Jefferson scholar Douglas Wilson thought O'Brien was unfair:

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/issues/96oct/obrien/response.htm

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