In March 1797, newly-inaugurated president John Adams thought he detected a glint of joy in George Washington’s eyes as the aging Virginian stepped off the world stage. Adams told his wife Abigail it was as if Washington was thinking, “I am fairly out and you fairly in! see which of Us will be happiest.” The first president had grown tired of the partisan rancor that plagued his second term and longed to sit under his own vine and fig tree at Mount Vernon in peace.
But Washington’s vision of a tranquil retirement was not to be. In the last few years of his life, European turmoil threatened American domestic security, his own finances were in shambles, and the fate of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon, and indeed enslaved Americans general, began to weigh heavily on Washington’s mind.
Many biographers treat Washington’s post-presidency years as a kind of coda to his life, as space that needs to be filled in order to get to the dramatic story of his death.
But for Jonathon Horn, those final years are fertile ground for understanding the United States in its infancy, what it meant for a republic to have an ex-president, and Washington’s own struggle to be one.
On today’s show, Horn joins Jim Ambuske via Zoom to discuss his new book, Washington’s End: The Final Years and the Forgotten Struggle.
About Our Guest:
Jonathan Horn is an author and former White House presidential speechwriter whose Robert E. Lee biography, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, was a Washington Post bestseller. In February 2020, Scribner published Jonathan's new book, Washington's End, the forgotten story of the final years of America's Founding Father.
Jonathan has appeared on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and PBS NewsHour. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times Disunion series, The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Politico Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and other outlets.
During his time at the White House, Jonathan served as a speechwriter and special assistant to President George W. Bush. A graduate of Yale University, Jonathan now lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, daughters, and dog.
About Our Host:
Jim Ambuske leads the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2016 with a focus on Scotland and America in an Age of War and Revolution. He is a former Farmer Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia Law Library. At UVA, Ambuske co-directed the 1828 Catalogue Project and the Scottish Court of Session Project. He is the co-author with Randall Flaherty of "Reading Law in the Early Republic: Legal Education in the Age of Jefferson," in The Founding of Thomas Jefferson's University ed. by John A. Rogasta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew O'Shaughnessy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019). Ambuske is currently at work on a book entitled Emigration and Empire: America and Scotland in the Revolutionary Era, as well as a chapter on Scottish loyalism during the American Revolution for a volume to be published by the University of Edinburgh Press.