William B. Allen

Where and when

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Summary: George Washington defined progressivism and provided the rationale for its constitutional basis in a vision of self-government: a nation dedicated to and capable of sustaining civil and religious liberty, the intertwined ends of politics as he saw it. For Washington, religious liberty was not a side benefit of independence but rather the objective for which independence was sought.

Washington’s political philosophy—radical for his time—was a commitment to the belief that law can never make just what is in its nature unjust. Before the close of the Revolutionary War, he had conceived of a union based on the progressive principle that the American people would qualify for self-government in the sense of free institutions in proportion to their moral capacity to govern themselves by the light of reason. Washington managed the conflicts over the spoils of victory that threatened to fracture the union. Containing this discord “within the walls of the Constitution” may be considered his single greatest achievement.

This overview traces Washington’s political development through the war years, describes his contributions to the Constitution and the founding of America, debunks misrepresentations of Washington’s relationship to slavery, and touchs his presidential administration including his precedent-setting decision to retire from the presidency after two terms.

William B. Allen, is Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University, and 2008-09 Visiting Senior Scholar in the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University. He also served previously on the National Council for the Humanities and as Chairman and Member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He was recently the Ann & Herbert W. Vaughan Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is an expert on liberal arts education, its history, importance and problems. He is also Chairman and co-founder of Toward A Fair Michigan, whose mission was to further understanding of the equal opportunity issues involved in guaranteeing civil rights for all citizens, and to provide a civic forum for a fair and open exchange of views on the question of affirmative action.

He has published extensively, most notably, George Washington: A Collection (Liberty Press). In 2008 appeared George Washington: America’s First Progressive (Peter Lang, Inc.), and The Personal and the Political: Three Fables by Montesquieu (UPA). In 2009 Re-Thinking Uncle Tom: The Political Philosophy of H. B. Stowe appeared. He previously published Habits of Mind: Fostering Access and Excellence in Higher Education (with Carol M. Allen; Transaction), The Essential Antifederalist (with Gordon Lloyd, Rowman & Littlefield) and The Federalist Papers: A Commentary (Peter Lang, Inc.). He served previously on the National Council for the Humanities and as Chairman and Member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.