Skip to main content


July 2024
2min read

Comment by Marcus Cunliffe, author of George Washington, Man and Monument:

Most of the particular judgments of the Soviet Encyclopedia could be found in the writings of American historians, though not so easily in current American historical writings and though not necessarily with the same emphasis. But of course they are so arranged as to seem—to Western eyes—“true but not the truth.” And some of them are badly awry. For example:

Mass extermination of Indians . Americans have no great reason to be proud, taking their history in general, of their treatment of the Indians. But at the time of the Seven Years’ War the Indians on the frontier were proud, powerful, and bloodthirsty. The Indian warriors who went with Washington on his first small frontier expedition in 1754 were the killers, not the killed; and the same was true of the Indians who fell upon Braddock’s army (which Washington accompanied) a year later. Even in 1791, during Washington’s Presidency, the Indians of the Northwest Territory were still able to inflict defeat upon an American army led by General Arthur St. Glair.

Shays’ Rebellion . This sentence implies a widespread revolt of the “masses.” In fact, though it may have been symptomatic of discontent elsewhere, the rebellion was confined to one small rising in western Massachusetts. A few of Shays’ men were killed by Massachusetts militia in January-February, 1787. George Washington was then a private citizen, far away in Virginia. He was alarmed by news of the affair, but took no part in meting out punishment against the rebels. Shays himself, the leader, was pardoned and lived in peace for over thirty years thereafter.

The Philadelphia Convention . In an indirect and partial sense, the Convention did represent a response to Shays’ Rebellion. But that was only one among many factors that brought the Philadelphia delegates together, under the somewhat reluctant chairmanship of Washington. The delegates met in secret, to the extent that their debates were not published. But the delegates were elected, and the Convention had the approval of the Continental Congress. Historians continue to argue over the motives of the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia. Charles A. Beard maintained that the delegates were men of property and wealth who stood to benefit economically by the adoption of the new Constitution. Recent critics of Beard have said that his thesis was inaccurate and rather simpleminded: the Founding Fathers were patriots first, and capitalists only in a secondary way. But neither Beard nor his critics would agree that the new Constitution “altogether deprived” the “masses” of a share in the federal government. Nor would they be happy with even a brief summary that made no mention of the factor of states’ rights.

Reactionary policy vis-à-vis France . Again, a complex problem on which American historians are by no means unanimous. Washington’s contemporary opponents certainly accused him of being swayed by the “reactionary” views of Alexander Hamilton. He probably took too seriously the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion of 1794; and he was unduly harsh in his comments on the Democratic-Republican societies that sprang up in the 1790’s. But though condemned to death, the ringleaders in Pennsylvania were pardoned; and while he would no doubt have liked to see them disappear, Washington did not destroy the Democratic clubs.

It was reluctance to be involved in war with Britain, rather than fear of revolution in America, that led to Jay’s Treaty. It was not an American diplomatic triumph. Yet it may have been almost the best bargain that could be struck, given America’s vulnerability. Jay’s Treaty was indeed most unpopular in the United States, but American scholars who could hardly be accused of want of patriotism or excessive Anglophilia have felt that in the circumstances it was not such a disaster. America, as Washington clearly understood, was still a small, raw nation: she needed to play for time.

Defender of the planters and the bourgeoisie . True and not true. Washington was a gentleman, a rich planter (though land-poor), and a speculator. But the Marxist formulas fail to explain his situation, or the peculiar quality of American conservatism. To call Washington either a revolutionary or a reactionary is to misconceive the man, his era, and his nation.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.