Conor Cruise O’Brien's FIRST IN PEACE: HOW GEORGE WASHINGTON SET THE COURSE FOR AMERICA
A book review by Dennis McDonald
This little book is organized around George Washington’s first and second terms as U.S. President. The first chapter concentrates on the relationship between Washington and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. The second focuses on the visit to the U.S. by Edmond-Charles Genêt, also known as “Citizen Genêt,” whose job it was to secure support from the American people for the French Revolution. Also covered are the Jay Treaty with England and the Whisky Rebellion. The author ties all these together in terms of the evolving relationship with France and how France and its Revolution were viewed by Washington, Jefferson, and the American people.
While I’m a great fan of history I found this book to be a bit annoying. One can tell that the author has a point of view about history that is at odds with other historians; for me that’s not a problem by itself since he usually makes his opinions clear.
One problem I have is that his writing style — including basic sentence structure — can be hard to follow in occasional situations where it is unclear whether what is being stated is based on explicit historical evidence or on the opinion or inference of the author.
I suppose you could argue that this book was not intended as a scholarly work but I don’t think that’s the case here. I think that what this book represents is an extension of the author’s ongoing debates with other historians. Amateurs who aren’t well-grounded in the major intellectual issues surrounding this period’s history — such as myself — enter at their own risk.
That said, there are some major “plot holes” here that left me hanging. For example, the author makes a good case for stating that Washington did not trust Jefferson when it came to foreign affairs regarding England and France. But his attempt to explain why Washington kept Jefferson around, despite a lack of trust and despite Jefferson’s involvement in political activity that openly opposed Washington’s policies, is unsatisfactory and at one point seems to rest on quoting an imaginary statement by Jefferson — written by another author!
In summary, this book reads as if it was written for a small circle of scholarly friends and foes who are already familiar with the issues and debates about Washington and Jefferson.
Once you know that, though, reading this book should definitely interest you in reading more about this period of U.S. history!
Book review copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald