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It almost goes without saying, even in the 21st century, that many important constitutional issues turn upon the original intent of the framers, that amorphous group of bewigged, 18th century white men who cobbled together the first seven articles of the U.S. Constitution. It follows that those of us interested in constitutional law would do well to learn as much as we can about those framers and the post-revolutionary society in which they lived. Fortunately, Joel Achenbach, reporter for the Washington Post and author of several books on presidential politics, extraterrestrial science and other topics, has now turned his considerable talents to early American history. In The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West, (Simon & Schuster 2004), Achenbach explores Washington’s lifelong interest in-some might say obsession with-that most American of rivers, the Potomac. Although Washington is far less frequently quoted by lawyers or law professors than, say, James Madison or Thomas Jefferson, his position as a framer of the Constitution is unimpeachable. He was, after all, the president of the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson, in contrast, was in Europe in 1787 and missed the whole thing. Perhaps Washington’s famous reticence has undercut his rightful place in American jurisprudence, but as many historians have noted, his stern, silent presence during the convention’s deliberations was invaluable. Moreover, Washington’s imprimatur helped to legitimize the convention’s secret and controversial proceedings, the propriety and scope of which were eminently questionable. As for the Potomac River, Achenbach describes in fascinating detail the central role it played in Washington’s life. Washington saw the river not so much as a body of water but as a ribbon with which to tie the new union together. Eight decades before the Civil War, Washington was less concerned about divisions between North and South than between East and West-between the Atlantic seaboard, home to most of the new nation’s population, and the western territories beyond the imposing Appalachian Mountains. Washington feared a divergence of economic and political interests between East and West that could eventually lead to disunion, especially if the Mississippi River, then closed by Spain, was ever opened to American trade. But Washington also thought that he had a solution: The Potomac, an east-west waterway located close to the geographical center of the nation’s coastline, promised a navigable route that could link the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River. Washington believed that such a route, properly improved, would require only a short portage road between the two watersheds. And if Westerners could ship their goods cheaply and directly to eager Easterners, they would have no reason to favor the Spaniards at New Orleans. As with most major public works projects, the primary problem with Washington’s grand idea was not engineering but money. And money sufficient to make the Potomac navigable could only be raised through political cooperation-a commodity in short supply in the 1780s, when the nominally “united” states were only loosely bound together by the Articles of Confederation. This political problem was brought home to Washington in 1785, when he invited commissioners from Virginia and Maryland-whose common boundary is largely defined by the Potomac-to Mount Vernon to discuss his proposed project. Politics aplenty, even back then The meeting was a success, resulting in the Mount Vernon Compact, which went well beyond the details of Potomac navigation. It established, for example, currency regulations between the two states, uniform duties and even shared naval protection of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay. Encouraged by their initial success, but also concerned that the Sixth Article of Confederation required Congress’ approval of the compact, Maryland and Virginia invited all 13 states to a meeting the following year in Annapolis, Md., “to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest.” Alas, the Annapolis Convention of September 1786, was a failure (in the first instance). Only five states attended, and the delegates disbanded without reaching any substantive agreement. However, they did accomplish something that eventually proved far more important: They called yet another meeting of all the states for the following spring, to discuss ways to improve the Articles of Confederation. That meeting eventually became the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Achenbach’s book reminds us that the need for political cooperation to improve the Potomac became one of the operative arguments, not only in Washington’s mind, but in the minds of others, in favor of a strong central government such as the one that the framers eventually created. Achenbach does a fine job of sketching the outlines of the Potomac’s significance in the 19th and 20th centuries. The river’s lower section is, of course, the site of the nation’s capital city, a location chosen only after a long and heated debate that is a story in itself. The Potomac was also the primary dividing line between the Union and Confederate States during our nation’s greatest constitutional crisis. But the real story involves the early years of the republic and Washington’s grand idea, and that tale alone makes this book worthwhile. Stewart Harris teaches constitutional law at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va.

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