His Excellency: George Washington
© 2005 Joseph Ellis
Most of the Founding Fathers are exalted, but not quite divine. They are icons not without blemish: John Adams had his temper, Benjamin Franklin his shameless lechery. But George Washington towers above the rest; in the American mythos, he is more divine than Jesus — Jesus, at least, was tempted. Joseph Ellis’ admitted attempt in His Excellency is to capture the demigod and bring Washington down to Earth. His biography succeeds in making Washington more of a human character, one who in his own time recognized he was being made into a legend and did his best to fulfill the reputation, both for the sake of the nation and his quiet sense of pride.
With precious little material to inform historians about his early years, Washington seems to spring into the world in the manner of Athena: fully-formed, and already in the thick of things as an inexperienced officer who accidentally set off the French and Indian War — making American history without even trying. His military service, marriage into a wealthy family, and natural air of authority led him to early prominence in Virginia, especially as ties between Britain and her colonies became increasingly frayed. He would be first president of the Second Continental Congress, then commander in chief of its army, and still later the first president of the American union. His adult accomplishments are well known to most, at least their particulars. What motivates Ellis is a desire to understand what made His Excellency tick. The biography subsequently takes the form of a character study.
From Ellis’ account, control is the presiding theme of Washington’s life: control over his passions, his finances, his legacy. Though idealized, he emerges here an intensely pragmatic man who expects the worst and works to minimize risks. This is why he prefers a professional army to one composed of militia-men: though a force of citizens which comes together in times of crisis has great romantic appeal, Washington’s own experience saw nothing in a republican fyrd to commend them. Untrained militia melted away in combat, or lost interest in the war. Only discipline and strength could meet adversity. In the face of the challenges the early Republic faced, Washington wanted those values in the saddle, not Jeffersonian hopes. Of course, his opponents might argue that decentralized power mitigated the risk of abuse moreso than a strong state, but Washington distrusted a passionate mob more than he did corrupt aristocrats, possibly because he regarded corruption as self-defeating. Though held as a champion of American liberty, Washington was thus very conservative in his way: he worked for American independence out of practicality, believing that Britain literally could not govern from a distance, and people needed to be governed, both by a government that prevented them from doing harm to one another and by self-imposed limits. The limits on Washington were all self-imposed: Ellis sees him as pursuing virtue for the practical reasons: not only would he be happier, but his name would be more gloriously remembered. Posterity would judge him not by the power he held, but by the power he refrained from using, and so Ellis places great emphasis on the numerous times Washington voluntarily surrendered power, moves that not only protected him from the charge of monarchism, but gave the American people a legend to idolize: behold, the philosopher-president, the noble Cinncinatus who governs wisely and then retires, avoiding being stained with the purple dye that Marcus Aurelius cautioned himself against being touched by.
I found His Excellency to be a most…appropriate biography, in that it reveals the Father of his Country to be a man with vices (like a lust for land), but whose pursuit of self-interest led to him becoming an exemplar of civic virtue. It’s the American dream. Both those who want to learn about his human side– his errors and frailties — and those who want to learn more about his life without the shining armor being tarnished will find His Excellency a solid contribution to their understanding.
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