Fox News anchor and former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino interviewed former White House speechwriter and historian Jonathan Horn about his newest book, “Washington’s End.” The book tells the true story of George Washington’s forgotten final years.
Dana Perino: You write that the full story of George Washington’s last years has previously gone untold. Why have past biographers not given this part of his life the attention it deserves?
Jonathan Horn: George Washington accomplished so much earlier in his life that biographers often end up shortchanging his last years. He fought in the French and Indian War, commanded the Continental Army during the American Revolution, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and served two terms as president.
By the time biographers make their way to the end of Washington’s presidency, they could be forgiven for wishing for a period of calm and repose almost as much as Washington himself did at that point in his life. But Washington’s life after the presidency turned out to be the opposite of restful. His final years were filled with intrigue, controversy, and torment.
Perino: You served as a White House speechwriter during the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Is that why you wanted to write about the first George W?
Horn: Being at the White House during the end of a presidency made me reflect on the transition presidents make when they leave office and become former presidents. I remember being in awe of the graciousness and historical perspective that George W. Bush showed when he vowed not to criticize his successors. True to form, he has kept his word.
Researching the last years of George Washington’s life has given me greater appreciation for just how difficult it is for former presidents to avoid meddling in the affairs of their successors. It was even more difficult for Washington when he left office, of course, because there was no obvious precedent for how he should conduct himself, and there were so many people and plots trying to drag him back into the fray. Eventually, they did.
Perino: The epigraph at the beginning of your book is a quotation from George Washington. “We know little of ourselves & much less the designs of Providence.” Why did you choose that quotation?
Horn: When George Washington left the presidency in March 1797, he looked forward to living out what little time he expected to have left on earth as a farmer at his Mount Vernon estate. He could never have imagined that a little more than a year later he would find himself pulled out of retirement and thrust back into military command.
But that was exactly what happened as the United States and France found themselves on the brink of a full-scale war. The then-sitting president, John Adams, appointed Washington commander in chief of the armies of the United States in July 1798. Soon, Washington and Adams found themselves in a serious feud over who would be second-in-command of the army.
Perino: Americans today are fascinated by the special bonds that can form among people who have occupied the presidency at different points. You said that Washington had a serious feud with Adams. How was his relationship with the men who succeeded Adams?
Horn: George Washington died in 1799 before the end of Adams’s one and only term so he did not live to see who succeeded Adams in office. Perhaps that was for the best given the anger Washington harbored against Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, who happened to be the next three presidents of the United States and had become leaders of a party that had emerged in opposition to Washington’s presidency.
Just consider, for example, the scene at Mount Vernon the night before Washington died.
His personal secretary read aloud a newspaper account of a speech that Madison had recently delivered in support of making Monroe the governor of Virginia. The news so infuriated the already-sick Washington that his secretary had to try to calm him.
Perino: Americans will soon celebrate Washington’s Birthday. Do you think your book wil change the way they view the Father of His Country and politics today?
Horn: What happened to George Washington during his last years, I think, will surprise readers. But I hope they finish the book with an even greater admiration for the man. I know I did. That the term “former president” sounds so ordinary today speaks to the strength of the precedent Washington set—because there was nothing ordinary about a head of state voluntarily surrendering power in Washington’s own time.
I also hope the book will give Americans today confidence in our country’s future. So many of the fears we have about excessive partisanship and new forms of media tearing us apart echo fears that Americans had during Washington’s last years. Despite these challenges, our forebears endured. And I have no doubt we will, too.