Richard Nisley

Band of Brothers
History - American Released - Nov 16, 2014

Three reviews of books from the Library of America, of the writings of George Washington, of Alexander Hamilton, and of John Marshall.


Historians continue to rate George Washington as our nation’s greatest president. But what about as a man of letters? The image we have of him is as a man of granite integrity and of few words, the strong silent type, in the mould of John Wayne and Bear Bryant, who led by example and strength of character. When he mounted his horse as General-in-Chief of the Continental Army, the look in his eyes spoke volumes. Had Washington led the way, his soldiers would have followed him into the very bowls of hell.

With John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, words were the message. Not so with Washington: he was the message. With the Library of America’s 1997 publication of “Washington: Writings” our nation’s Founding Father emerges as a true man of letters. The 1149-page tome includes letters, addresses, general orders, diary entries, speeches, circulars, messages to Congress, and his Farewell Address to the nation. There’s more. The Papers of George Washington, an ongoing project, has reached Volume 64 of a projected 87 volume series of books (which includes letters written by, and to Washington). It turns out Washington was indeed a man of words, volumes of words.

What sort of writer was he? Clear, forthright, and direct, as you’d expect. One biographer has described Washington’s prose as “muscular” and I think that says it. It’s well-known that Washington worked with a number of ghost writers over the years--most notably David Humphreys, Tobias Lear, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson--but Washington’s distinctly direct style somehow manages to hold sway, which can only mean that Washington’s writers knew well his style, or that Washington rewrote everything, which likely was the case when breaking in a new writer. An excellent example of how Washington worked with writers is offered in chapter 4 of “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis. It’s about the conception and writing of the Washington’s Farewell Address as president. Hamilton is the writer, but the ideas are clearly Washington’s. The address was written and rewritten by Hamilton until Washington was thoroughly satisfied.

If you wish to truly understand Washington, the one-volume “Washington: Writings” is a must. The editor, John Rhodehamel, selected 440 documents, broken down into five periods of Washington’s life: The Colonial Period, 1747-1775; Commander of the Continental Army,1775-1783; The Confederation Period, 1783-1789; President, 1789-1797; and Retirement, 1797-1799. What you won’t find is the correspondence between Washington and his wife Martha. She burned all their letters after his death. Below is a sampling:

“Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” 1747. A hand-copied list of rules of etiquette originally composed by Jesuit scholars in 1595. For young George, it probably served as an exercise in penmanship. Nonetheless, a number of rules stayed with Washington throughout his life, such as the very first: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

Letter of instructions to the captain of the Virginia Regiments, July 29, 1759. “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.”

Address to the Continental Congress, June 16, 1775. Washington’s acceptance speech of his appointed as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He had his doubts. “. . . I declare this day with utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with.”

General Orders, July 2, 1776. “Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a free man, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to slavish mercenaries on earth.”

Letter to John Hancock, December 27, 1776. Washington’s report of victory at Trenton (over the mercenary Hessians) that changed the course of the war. “Our loss is very trifling indeed, only two officers and one or two privates wounded.”

Speech to the Officers of the Army, March 15, 1783. Written in Washington’s own hand, the speech was given to put down a conspiracy within the officers corps that threatened a military takeover of the government. Washington’s greatest moment was part theatrics, when he produced his eyeglasses. No one had ever seen the General wear spectacles in public before. He looked out to his assembled offices while adjusting the new glasses and said: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.” Several offices began to weep and all thoughts of military coup died at the moment. The speech itself was anti-climatic.

Farewell Address to the Armies of the United States, November 2, 1783. Upon receiving word from Paris that the peace treaty had been signed, Washington resigned his commission and bid farewell to the Continental Army in an emotional ceremony in which he addressed them as “one patriotic band of brothers.” Said Washington: “The unparalleled perseverance of the United States Armies, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle.”

Reflections on Slavery, c. 1788-89. “The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labor in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.”

To Henry Knox, April 1, 1789. Having received word he was elected president of the United States, Washington wrote: “. . . my movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” Further on he added: “Integrity and firmness is all I can promise. . . .”

Letter to Catherine Macaulay Graham, January 9, 1790. “In our progress towards political happiness my station (as president) is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any action, whose motives may not be subject to a double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”

Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 1790. “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Farewell Address, September 19, 1796. “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. . . . The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degrees a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. . . . ‘Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.” A five-star recommendation.


I read somewhere that reading a book is like walking through an author's mind. Whether intended or not, the author reveals something of himself. It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, history or biography, the message comes through, indicating the kind of person he is and his outlook on life. Has he lost faith and become cynical, or has he maintained an optimistic outlook? Does he see the glass as half-full or half-empty? His words will you tell you.

That, I believe is the importance of the Library of America series. It allows readers the opportunity to discover for themselves what an historical figure such as Alexander Hamilton was really like. In the past, historians have had exclusive access to the personal papers and government documents of such people, and drawn their own conclusions. Let's face it, their conclusions often reflect their personal or professional prejudices which they use to support their particular point-of-view and in turn impress upon their readers. The Library of America books have changed that, thankfully.

Reading Hamilton's letters--to his wife, to his friends, and to associates such as George Washington, John Jay, and Gouverneur Morris, presents a side of Hamilton that is seldom revealed. Then there are his government documents: The Report on Public Credit, the Report on the National Bank, the Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank, the 51 essays included in the Federalist Papers, and so on. As you read these letters and documents, which, as letters are thoughtful and considerate, and as government documents are measured, well-reasoned, and remarkably clear in the presentation, an impression begins to form. Hamilton wasn't merely brilliant, as even his enemies attested ("A host unto himself," as Jefferson said), but tolerant, racially color-blind, even-tempered, honest to a fault, forthright, optimistic, dogmatically persuasive when he had to be, and generally a man of good will (or, as Alistair Cooke put it, Hamilton exhibited an absence of malice, "a steady willingness to believe his opponent is as honorable a man as himself, and may be right").

Another reason to purchase this book is it contains all of Hamilton's major policy papers in a single volume. These are the papers of a pragmatic political thinker who advocated a strong central government, a strong chief executive, judicial review, wealth based on liquidity and not land, merit and not heredity. As Secretary of the Treasury, he made provision for the national debt, restored the nation's credit, and set in motion American capitalism.

Some reviewers have said many of his letters and documents are too long and tedious to read. Perhaps. If patient and persistent, the magic in Hamilton's writings will come alive for you, as it has for me. And remember: these documents were written by candlelight--and read by candlelight. We have no such restriction.

The vibrant and brilliant Yale professor Joanne B. Freeman served as editor for "Alexander Hamilton: Writings." My one quibble is she left out Hamilton's letter to Robert Morris, dated 30 April 1781, where he makes his case for monetizing the national debt, advocates the necessity of a national bank, and makes his famous statement: "A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing." If you're truly interested in the Founding Generation and what they achieved, this book is a must. Five stars.


I learned about John Marshall in college while taking a course on Constitutional Law. There were no textbooks; we read cases directly from the law books in the library. It was the only class in which I saved my notes. We read all the landmark decisions, up to Roe v. Wade, but it was Marshall's opinions that carried the most weight, because they established the precedent for judicial review, beginning with Marbury v. Madison. It was for this reason I purchased this book, to read Marshall's opinions once again. That said, there's much more here, to put a human face on our nation's greatest jurist: letters, reports, speeches, addresses, resolutions, and excerpts from his book "The Life of George Washington."

Marshall was born in a log cabin in a frontier settlement in Virginia in 1755, and never left home until joining Washington's army. He was home-schooled by his father, and did not go to college. Later on he received a few months' legal lectures at the College of William and Mary. He married, settled permanently in Richmond, and by character and brilliance rose to prominence as one of the nation's leading attorneys. He served briefly as as secretary of state under John Adams; then became chief justice of the Supreme Court.

At the time (1801), the Supreme Court met in a cramped 24-by-30-foot committee room in the basement of the Capitol. It had little power, and was despised by President Thomas Jefferson as the last Federalist stronghold. How did Marshall make the Supreme Court the equal of Congress and the presidency? By picking a Constitutional issue so trivial as to seem ridiculous, and decided it in a way that gave Jefferson a "victory" while asserting the court's own right to overthrow acts of Congress. This was Marbury v. Madison. The decision created a legal precedent that with time hardened into irrevocable law. There followed a series of decisions that nothing seemed able to stay; Jefferson and his successors appointed judges of different persuasion to the court, only to have the charismatic Marshall make converts of them all. Marshall made their living arrangements in the backwoods capital a kind of cozy bachelor's club, living, eating, and working together. The pleasant atmosphere coupled with Marshall's humor and congeniality discouraged bitter disagreement. As new judges replaced old, Marshall won them over, confounding the presidents who appointed them.

This is the John Marshall we come to know reading this book, a remarkable man with the friendliness of the frontier and the grace of the Virginia gentry, who continues making converts to this day. He served on the high court 35 years and with his decisions cemented the supremacy of the federal government and set the precedent for judicial review. Five stars.

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