In Conversation

Recounting George Washington’s ‘forgotten struggle’ with author Jonathan Horn

Jonathan Horn

As a speechwriter for President George W. Bush ’68 B.A. from 2006 to 2009, Jonathan Horn ’04 B.A. gained rare insight into the exercise of presidential power.

Horn’s White House experience yielded valuable perspective for his new book, “Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle” (Scribner), which chronicles the first president’s life from his retirement in March 1797 to his death, at age 67, in December 1799. Washington served as president from 1789 to 1797.

Horn, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, recently spoke with YaleNews about the book. Interview edited and condensed.

What sparked your interest in Washington’s final years?

My interest was twofold: First, I had worked for George W. Bush at the end of his presidency and had witnessed his transition to former president. Second, my previous book was a biography of Robert E. Lee that focused on his connections to George Washington’s legacy. Lee was the son of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who was Washington’s most famous eulogist, and he married the daughter of Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Yet, Lee decided to go to war against the Union.

Once you start considering a person’s legacy, you get drawn to their final years. I realized that the last years of Washington’s life had never been fully told. He accomplished so much that, by the time biographers get to the end of his life, they’ve run out of the space or time to give it the attention it deserves.

What is the “forgotten struggle” referenced in the book’s title?

For me, it was Washington’s struggle to surrender power and leave public life. It proved to be much more difficult than he imagined. He really wanted to retire — he wanted to do so after his first term — but so many forces and personalities were constantly trying to lure him back into the public square. Eventually, they succeeded.

Today, we take surrendering power for granted, but it wasn’t easy for Washington. I think that should increase our appreciation of him.

How did Washington envision his retirement?

When Washington retired in March of 1797, he imagined himself returning to Mount Vernon and not straying far from the estate’s boundaries for the rest of his life. He imagined himself occupying his time as a farmer, renovating his house, and arranging his papers. History turned out differently.

How did the public react to his decision to leave public life?

Washington retired at a time when heads of state usually only relinquished power upon their deaths. His successor, John Adams, recalled looking around the room during his inauguration and seeing people in tears. He knew those tears weren’t for him, but that everyone was so moved by Washington surrendering power. They knew they were witnessing history. 

Editors of opposition newspapers were delighted to see Washington return to Mount Vernon. They had attacked him throughout his second term, sometimes in quite personal terms. They celebrated his retirement in a way that I think would surprise people today.

"General George Washington at Trenton" by John Trumbull
“General George Washington at Trenton” (1792), by John Trumbull (Image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)

Did Washington keep abreast of politics during his brief retirement?

He very much stayed informed. He read newspapers voraciously. Adams had retained Washington’s cabinet secretaries, and the former president pressed them to send him updates of what was happening behind the scenes.

Today, we’re accustomed to assuming presidents become less partisan when they leave office. The opposite happened in Washington’s case. He despondently concluded that people had to choose between the Federalists or Jeffersonian Republicans, and he was a Federalist. He favored the infamous Alien and Sedition acts, which were aimed at suppressing the political opposition, and favored excluding Republicans from high-ranking positions in the new army.

There were some Federalists who hoped to persuade him to run for a third term in 1800. Washington tried to silence these discussions, and, of course, he didn’t live to see the election.

What drew him back into the fray?

A little more than a year after leaving office, Washington was nominated to be commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States amid a war-scare with France. He accepted the role.

Did he agonize over that decision?

He was very concerned about what people would say. He worried they would think that what he had written in his farewell address about his desire to leave public life was a sham. He also was concerned that he might do something that would damage his legacy. For that reason, he made choosing his own general officers a condition of accepting the role. This caused a feud with President John Adams, who was unhappy that Washington wanted to name Alexander Hamilton the second in command. Adams worried Hamilton had the makings of a military dictator.

Washington had been a slaveholder since he was 11 years old. How did he view slavery by the end of his life? 

It was a disappointment to Washington, I think, that he could not find a way to provide eventual freedom for all of the men, women, and children held in slavery at Mount Vernon. The will he left when he died in 1799 provided eventual emancipation for all the slaves he owned but could not do the same for the so-called dower slaves, who had come to Mount Vernon only as a result of his marriage to the widow Martha Custis. As a result, Washington died knowing that Mount Vernon had a destiny similar to that of the country he had created. Both, in a sense, would be half-slave and half-free.

What’s more daunting: writing presidential speeches or presidential biographies?

There are similarities. When you write a speech for a president, you have a front row seat to history. You’re helping a president explain a decision in real time. Being a presidential biographer is similar in that you find yourself trying to explain momentous decisions that a president made in the past.

How did your experience as an undergraduate at Yale influence your writing career and interest in history?

I was an English major, which I think is the best major for learning to write and think critically. I was lucky to take an amazing class with Professors David Bromwich and Steven Smith on Abraham Lincoln’s writing. It was cross-listed as both an English class and a political science class. It changed the way I looked at our 16th president, and drew me to political speechwriting. 

It was as a reporter for the Yale Daily News that I first had the opportunity to do research in Yale’s historical archives at Sterling Library. It’s a special feeling to encounter a letter that somebody wrote long ago — the handwriting, the yellowed paper. Since then, I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to visit an archive and study materials that are waiting to be rediscovered. The Yale Library has so many resources, and I hope students take advantage of them.

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324