Just finished the Joseph J. Ellis autobiography on George Washington, His Excellency. A couple of observations about this book and the subject:
a.) Washington was a realist whose experiences were forged in the French and Indian War. Unlike Jefferson or Adams, who came from genteel upbringings and had university educations, Washington's education was derived in warfare. As president, he was unencumbered by intellectual idealism and governed according to that which was in the best interests of the nascent republic.
b.) He was, above and beyond anything, a federalist. Knowing full well that the republic could not survive under the Jeffersonian philosophy of states' interests taking precedence over the federal government, he threw his lot in with the Hamiltonian philosophy of centralized government. He thought the Articles of Confederation were a flawed framework for the United States, and he presided over the Constitutional Convention, though he took care not to interject his opinions on matters too frequently.
c.) He knew, from the beginning of the Revolutionary War onward that slavery was wrong. Washington was no philosopher or great intellect, but he was a pragmatist. He knew the ideals that were the kernel of the Revolutionary War were wholly incompatible with the institution of slavery. After his presidency, he spent his remaining years trying to secure his own financial matters in the hopes that he could use that financial security to free his slaves. (With a fairly large amount of them he had no legal right to do so, as they were part of his wife's estate and not his own.) There were 300 slaves at Mount Vernon; only 100 of them were actually working the estate. The rest were either too old or too young to be of any practical use. Washington refused to sell any of them, for to do so would be to break up families. On his death, he freed all of them as per his will. He knew history was watching, and he would be judged harshly for his participation in the institution. All of this hardly exonerates him from his involvement, but it does go a long way towards showing that he was far from oblivious on the issue towards the end of his life, though he was completely without shame regarding it in his younger, pre-Revolutionary War years.
d.) He instructed his wife Martha to burn all correspondence between the two of them on his death. She did so. Once again, Washington knew history would attempt to get a glimpse of the real George Washington. He didn't want to give history that opportunity.
e.) He never said, "entangling alliances with none". Pat Buchanan throws this quote around, and it is apocryphal. What Washington did say in his Farewell Address was, "'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world". This is different than saying the US should have no alliances externally, as Buchanan asserts. What the quote really means is what one 19th century British parliamentarian said, which was "we have no perpetual enemies and no permanent friends; we only have perpetual and permanent interests".
f.) He is the only man in history to command a victorious army and not assume the mantle of state leadership by gunpoint. Mao Tze-Dong led the Chinese Red Army to victory in 1949 against Chaing Kai-Shek's Nationalist Army only to turn around and become supreme leader, with an army at his back. Ditto Napoleon, Oliver Cromwell, Julius Caesar, Fidel Castro, and virtually every other leader that commanded an army in history. Washington won the Revolutionary War, then willingly abdicated his prospective position as the first monarch of the United States. This was, and still remains, a truly radical act of history. George III of Great Britain was heard to proclaim that if Washington actually did this, he would be remembered as the greatest man in history. With this act alone, one could make a serious argument that he was.
e.) Politics was as nasty in the late 18th century as it is today, and even Washington was not immune to it. Washington's first term went relatively smooth, and everyone was civil and loving, at least on the surface. Washington's second term, however, was as tempestuous and divisive as anything in modern times. Jefferson and Madison plotted against Washington's back, started rumors that Washington was not in his right mind, was senile, and was being controlled by the conniving Alexander Hamilton. (Washington was aware of their duplicity and essentially excommunicated Jefferson from his inner-circle.) Tom Paine wrote an open letter to Washington that actually wished for Washington's death. Paine wrote, "...whether the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abondoned good principles, or whether you ever had any". On some level, this made me feel better about the current state of American politics. I guess it never was meant to be civil after all.