Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

"The centre of our union": George Washington's political philosophy and the creation of American national identity in the 1790s
by Staude, Ryan, Ph.D., State University of New York at Albany, 2013, 350; 3559433
Abstract (Summary)

For most of his presidency (1789-1797), George Washington worked to establish the federal government's legitimacy in the eyes of America's citizens while trying to gain international respect for the new nation. Although there was a broad elite consensus at the start of the decade it quickly dissipated in the face of basic questions about the federal government's power and scope of authority. Domestic political issues became entangled with foreign policy problems to create an intractable divide between opposing groups of Americans termed the Federalists and the Republicans. The two parties contended to see not only who would administer the government, but also to determine which group would define the new nation's identity.

This study places George Washington at the center of the contest over the formation of America's national identity during the 1790s. Washington envisioned America as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals of freedom and liberty. He believed it had the potential to stand in stark contrast to the monarchies and despotism of the Old World. The United States could inspire other nations to follow its lead on the path to freedom.

America could only achieve this position if it were secure, united and independent. These three characteristics would give the nation legitimacy on the international stage. In his efforts to establish America's claim to nationhood, Washington incurred the displeasure of the Republican Party who viewed the president as a tool in the hands of Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists. In his quest to establish security, unity, and independence, they argued, the President betrayed the ideals of the Revolution. Ultimately, it was the public who cast aside Washington's vision for American national identity, not because they disagreed with it, but because they had already mythologized Washington to the point where he was more myth than man. He was a living deity who served a symbolic importance for unity, but had little impact on the nation's identity.

Historiographically, no scholar has undertaken an in-depth examination of Washington's political philosophy (as president), and specifically how this philosophy affected the nascent nation-state's identity. Works like Paul Longmore's The Invention of George Washington, Glenn Phelps's George Washington and American Constitutionalism and the recently published, The Political Philosophy of George Washington (Jeffry Morison) examine one aspect of Washington's political beliefs, or focus on a specific chronological period. My exploration of Washington's beliefs (the heart of the studies mentioned above) is only one part of the dissertation. No attempt has been made to investigate Washington's substantive impact on nationalism and identity. David Waldstreicher, Len Travers, and Joanne B. Freeman have all looked at the formation of nationalism and identity in the 1790s, but Washington's political philosophy and presidency earns little of their attention. Washington was the most well regarded American, nationally and internationally, of his era. The lack of a proper study on his political beliefs and their reception among his fellow Americans is a lacuna which the dissertation seeks to remedy.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Kim, Sung Bok
Commitee: Hamm, Richard F., Kendall, Richard H.
School: State University of New York at Albany
Department: History
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 74/08(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American history, Political science
Keywords: National identity, Politics, Washington, George
Publication Number: 3559433
ISBN: 9781303044960
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