Garry Wills’s new book, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment,[1] seems meant to put an artistic seal on his project of refounding America. Where before he was Inventing America or Explaining America, now he is sculpting America. In Washington, Wills finds an emblem for the nobler America, replete with classical republicanism, that he thinks we have basely abandoned. Wills’s general project has a long pedigree. Merely to point to it is to indicate what makes this book so intriguing on first glance, yet ultimately so unsatisfactory and frustrating.

Emerging in the 1960s from the Catholic conservatism that had originally led him to National Review, Wills was repelled by what he saw as the baseness of Locke’s classical liberalism. In his earlier books he sought to wrest the American founding (and thus,...

 
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