- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun” 1950
“The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1787
The United States of America is a work in progress — and always has been, as Logan Beirne demonstrates in his readable and scholarly “Blood of Tyrants: George Washington and the Forging of the Presidency” (Encounter Books, 440 pages, notes, index, $27.99).
Beirne rightly focuses on the nation’s first commander in chief, George Washington, serving under the Continental Congress governing under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, to give the flawed forerunner to the Constitution its full name — and how the interaction of Washington and Congress influenced the Constitutional Convention that convened in Philadelphia four years after the end of the war in 1787.
“Blood of Tyrants” reveals the surprising details of our Founding Fathers’ approach to government and this history’s impact on today. Delving into the forgotten—and often lurid—facts of the Revolutionary War, Beirne focuses on the nation’s first commander in chief, George Washington, as he shaped the very meaning of the United States Constitution in the heat of battle.
Key episodes illustrate how the Founders dealt with thorny wartime issues: Who decides war strategy? When should we use military tribunals over civilian trials? Should we inflict harsh treatment on enemy captives if it means saving American lives? How do we protect citizens’ rights when the nation is struggling to defend itself?
Beirne finds evidence in previously-unexplored documents such as General Washington’s letters debating torture, an eyewitness account of the military tribunal that executed a British prisoner, Founders’ letters warning against government debt, and communications pointing to a power struggle between Washington and the Continental Congress.Beirne supplies us with vivid stories from the Revolution that frame Washington’s pivotal role in the drafting of the Constitution. The Founders saw the first American commander in chief as the template for all future presidents: a leader who would fiercely defend Americans’ rights and liberties against all forms of aggression. And yes, they were worried about placing all this power in one person. Fortunately, they picked the right person in Washington, who didn’t want unlimited power; in fact, early in his military career as commander in chief, he deferred to Congress in ways that surprised me.
At first I was confused about Beirne’s goal in writing “Blood of Tyrants.” It obviously wasn’t a full-scale biography of Washington, but it included episodes of his life that help explain his later actions. Everything was illuminated as I progressed through the book: Beirne’s narrative pulls the reader directly into the scenes, filling the void in our understanding of the presidency and our ingenious Founders’ pragmatic approach to issues we still face today.
About the Author
Logan Beirne is an Olin Scholar at Yale Law School. Prior to this appointment, Beirne practiced as an attorney with the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City and was a Fulbright Scholar at Queen’s University. He received his JD from Yale Law School, where he was a Coker Fellow and awarded the Edgar M. Cullen Prize for his constitutional scholarship. Beirne has served on the boards of directors for multiple charities and is admitted to the New York and Connecticut Bars.
Beirne’s passion for the Revolution is in his blood—he is directly descended from Revolutionary War patriots and his family tree includes the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison. Some of Washington’s papers were discovered in Beirne’s ancestor’s storage chest.Publisher’s website: www.encounterbooks.com