As Horn points out, when one is as iconic and legendary as George Washington was, retirement was easier said than done. Although the revolution had been over for more than a decade, the times were still precarious. As much as we may think that politics are polarized today, things weren't all that different in the years following Washington's exit from the presidency. Political divisions continued between the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and the Republicans (also known in what now seems like schizophrenic terminology as Democrats) led by Thomas Jefferson. John Adams, though technically and ideologically a Federalist, faced disloyalty from his cabinet, and was despised by his both fellow Federalist Hamilton and his former friend Jefferson, as he tried to steer a middle course between those who wanted an alliance with France and those who wanted war with their former ally.
Horn provides wonderful insight into Washington's character: opinionated, but at the same time very reserved. Others were always trying to bring him into disputes and add his gravitas to their side, some like Hamilton more successfully than others. When John Adams decided to beef up the army in the midst of the "quasi-war", he reluctantly concluded that Washington must be its leader, and Horn tells the story of the behind-the-scenes battle to determine who would become the army's second in command (and de facto leader) the experienced Henry Knox, or the ambitious Hamilton. He also offers gives the reader a picture of who the others in Washington's household at Mount Vernon were: the dutiful, wise and likeable former first lady Martha Custis Washington, their grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) and the unambitious George Washington Parke Custis (Wash), his troubled secretary Tobias Lear, and Eliza Powell, a favorite correspondent of Washington's, who liked to tease him in her letters.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Horn's account of Washington's sudden and unexpected death, and especially the primitive medical practices that were used to try to "heal" Washington, including bleeding him of about five pints of blood. Even after Washington had passed away, one doctor claimed that a warm bath and an transfusion of lamb's blood might bring Washington back to life.
This is a well researched and well written account of an overlooked period in the life of Washington, followed by an account of how the city that bore his name developed after his passing. Horn has a good style of writing, with vivid descriptions of events, giving the reader a strong sense of the mood of the times and the personalities of the players. He does so thoroughly, but without unnecessary verbiage, managing to give a complete picture of Washington's final years in just 225 pages. Even the hard to please first president would approve of what Horn has accomplished in this work. Tis well.