It has often been suggested that anyone crazy enough or ambitious enough to want to be president of the United States should be automatically disqualified for the position. If this were the case, George Washington might have been the last chief executive as well as the first—at least, Norton’s Washington would have suited well enough. A little deaf, a little forgetful, fretting over his advancing age, and jealous of every moment stolen from his longed-for retirement, Washington was nevertheless that rare combination of dedicated public servant and consummate politician.

As a backdrop, Smith paints a rough and roguish young nation half-cocked after its victory against the British and giddy with independence. Two cities, increasingly cosmopolitan New York and historic, aristocratic Philadelphia, compete with an undeveloped blot on the banks of the Potomac for prominence as the capital city of the United States. Two sinister figures ruthlessly herd the country into opposing camps: the brilliant Alexander Hamilton, Dickensian in his malice and insatiable ambition, and the vindictive, hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, constantly calculating his chances of one day assuming the highest office. In the wings, the ineffectual John Adams worries that one day he might have to be president.

Washington appears on this sordid stage as a reassuring reminder that there are well-balanced, humane individuals capable of shaping not only the policies of an organized body but also its character. Much of the respect owned by the office, regardless of the officeholder, was bought with the far-sighted efforts of the first president.

Smith’s PATRIARCH is an enlightening look at the United States in its formative years as well as an engaging biography. While the reader may find the portraits of Jefferson, Adams, James Monroe, Thomas Paine, and other patriots of revolutionary America weirdly unbalanced, Washington himself comes through the examination untarnished—in fact, glowing with the dignity, integrity, and humanity one enjoys attributing to the man.