Focusing on a Forgotten Time

Professor Ed Larson stands in front of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia where he lived for several months completing research for his book.

Pepperdine University Professor of history Edward “Ed” Larson shines a light on a long-overlooked period of American history with his ninth book, “The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 (Harper Collins, 2014).” The book has been critically acclaimed in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as dozens of other book reviews for its engaging narrative based on in-depth historical research.

Some of us can recall from history class that the Revolutionary War was fought from 1775 to 1783, but the Constitution wasn’t signed until 1787, and Washington didn’t begin his term as the first U.S. president until 1789. 

What was going on during the nearly six years the U.S. was newly independent from Britain, yet had very little centralized government, no Constitution and no president? This period is what “The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789” explores closely for the first time.

“Having taught American history for 20 years at various colleges using the standard narrative for the Revolutionary Era, I felt there must be more to the story,” Larson said when asked why he decided to write about this particular slice of history. “Washington features prominently during the American Revolution and then again five years later when he becomes the first president. But after all his sacrifice during the war and how deeply he cared about the American vision of liberty and independence, would he simply return to his farm and quietly sit by while it all collapsed during those chaotic years after securing independence and before obtaining an effective union? I thought not, so I wanted to explore what Washington actually did — both on the political and the domestic front — during this period.”

Larson has been traveling extensively, giving lectures based on the book and said, “I often get asked about Washington’s views of slavery and how he could reconcile owning slaves with the concept to liberty. Of course, I deal with this issue in the book, but it deserves extended discussion. People also often want to know more about Washington’s personal life and are struck by what an affable human being he really was and his love of fishing, horseback riding and farming.” 

The book also has some lessons for today’s politicians.

“I see the story as a cautionary tale for the importance of political compromise and working together for the common good,” Larson said. “Washington was a savvy political leader and political general who never lost sight of his larger goals — individual liberty and political independence — even as he listened to others and compromised on means to achieve the common good as he saw it.”

When asked if the U.S. would exist without Washington, Larson said, “Washington was one of several critical actors during the American Revolution. Think of all the revolutions in the past and today that have turned out so badly … to consume the liberty they fought to establish, or at least to descend into long periods of chaos. Think of France in 1789, Russia in 1917 and various Middle Eastern countries today.”

Larson gives Washington and Benjamin Franklin the lion’s share of credit for establishing the country as we know it.

“Washington and Franklin played a larger-than-life role in securing victory and establishing peace. Others were critical, too, of course — all of it only worked because of the character of the American people. But it’s hard for me to see it turning out so well without Washington and Franklin — all Americans continue to live in their shadow,” he said. 

And, because of his work at Pepperdine, Larson writes his books on his own time. “I have plenty to do during the workday with teaching, administration, grading and working on academic articles,” he explained. “Writing books like this one are my avocation as much as my vocation — it’s what I enjoy doing.”

He gathers research material for his various books over the years “and when I finally have enough material, I write them,” Larson said. Once he focuses on the writing, it takes Larson about a year to finish a book.

Larson finds his source material from letters, diaries, newspapers from the era and physical artifacts. He also likes to walk where the people walked, see where they lived and try to experience what they experienced.

“That was why my book on early Antarctic science took me to Antarctica, my book on the Scopes trial took me so often to Dayton, Tennessee, and this book took me to Mount Vernon (where I lived for months), Philadelphia, New York, the Hudson Valley and places in between — all the places Washington was during this critical period,” he said.

Click here to read an excerpt from “The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789.”