Dinner at the Mount Vernon Inn
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Series Topic: George Washington and the American Union
Lecturer: Edward J. Larson, Ph.D.
Many narratives tell of Washington’s role during the American Revolution or as the country’s first President, but few focus on the pivotal six years in between. Even when biographers reach the Constitutional Convention, which took place during this period, they typically present Washington as a stiff, silent presiding officer who mainly contributed his prestige to the proceedings. The standard narrative then has him returning to Mount Vernon during the ratification debates and first federal election.
In these lectures, Professor Larson will show that Washington was much more than a Virginia farmer during this time. He remained the indispensable American, looking west for national expansion and playing a key role in the drive toward a strong central government that culminated in drafting and ratifying a new Constitution. Often working behind the scenes but still very much in the public imagination, he helped to bind the states into the single federal republic that he then so ably led.
Watch a Past Lecture
A recording from the first lecture can be watched here.
About Edward J. Larson
Larson is a University Professor of history and holds the Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. He is a Senior Fellow of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, and a visiting professor at Stanford Law School.
He received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. He is the author of nine books and nearly one hundred published articles, including A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. Larson was a member of the 2013–14 inaugural class of fellows at The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
|September 11, 2014 at 7 p.m.||Washington Looks West: 1784-1786
George Washington famously “retired” from public life when he resigned his military commission following the American Revolution, but his commitment to his country continued. Before stepping down, he issued a Circular Letter to the State Governments calling for a stronger federal union. For Washington, however, the country’s future lay west, on the frontier. He had invested in western lands before the war, and after it sought to develop those lands and link the trans-Appalachian west to the seaboard states. Without strong ties, he feared the west would be lost and the states remain a dependent coastal confederation. Within months after his return to Mount Vernon, Washington set off on an arduous journey to his western lands and launched a visionary program to link west to east via Potomac River navigation. These efforts and his proposal for staged western development displayed Washington’s devotion to forging a strong, independent nation.
|October 9, 2014 at 7 p.m.||Washington in Philadelphia: 1787
George Washington’s efforts to forge a strong federal union culminated in the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. He backed holding the Convention and agreed to participate as a delegate from Virginia once he felt that there was some chance that the meeting could succeed in drafting a vigorous new constitution. Unanimously selected to preside over the Convention, Washington remained actively involved in shaping the final product even as he enjoyed the social scene in cosmopolitan Philadelphia. Renowned as a military leader, Washington now displayed astute political, social, and leadership skills in crafting the Constitution and securing its unanimous adoption by a highly fractious body. He also became the public face of the Convention and its Constitution, which helped to ensure their legitimacy and popular acceptance. Professor Larson will assess Washington’s often underappreciated role at the Convention.
|November 13, 2014 at 7 p.m.||Washington, Ratification, and the First Federal Election: 1788-1789
Washington left Philadelphia not knowing if the states would ratify the Constitution but aware that he would likely serve as the first president if the document was ratified. Working behind the scenes to avoid charges of self-interest, he threw himself into the ratification effort even as he denied interest in the presidency. Nine states needed to ratify the Constitution for it to take effect; more were necessary for the government to work. Fierce partisan battles erupted in many states, with Washington’s support for the document, and his assumed service, as president serving as the Federalists’ most effective argument. Following ratification, the battle shifted to the First Federal Election, with Federalists and Anti Federalists seeking to gain the advantage. They could agree on only one issue: Washington would be the President. He became the unifying figure that bound the states together and made the presidency into the popular symbol of national union.
October 28, 2014 at 7 p.m.
For Abraham Lincoln, the road to the future always began in the past—America’s, and his. As a boy he admired George Washington as a champion of liberty. As a young man, he found in Thomas Paine lessons about religion, which he ultimately abandoned, and about how to win arguments, which he retained for the rest of his life. At the height of his career he embraced Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as a statement of principle (an “apple of gold,” he called it, quoting the Bible), and the Preamble to the Constitution, which named the people as beneficiaries and guardians of freedom. Other books on Lincoln note his interest in the founding fathers and how he looked back to them, but here for the first time a historian of the founding looks ahead to Lincoln.
About Richard Brookhiser
Brookhiser is the author of numerous books on revolutionary America and the Founding Fathers. He was author and host of Rediscovering George Washington, a film by Michael Pack, which aired on PBS July 4, 2002. He was the historian curator of “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America,” a 2004 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. In 2008 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.