Joseph Ellis in His Excellency: George Washington (2004) sets out to replace a mythic American hero with the flesh and blood of the actual man. He succeeds in doing so, but in the process finds another hero in the original’s place. Washington was not, unlike Jefferson and Adams, a formally educated individual. He was educated here and there, but was largely self- taught, and often in the course of his life relied on others to tell him what he needed to learn, to teach him the knowledge and skills he needed. Despite whatever insecurities Washington might have felt about his upbringing and education, he was willing to take the necessary steps to compensate for them. Pragmatism was one of his essential traits. He had many others, including ambition, sensitivity to criticism, sensitivity to his own awareness of the mistakes he made, overestimation on occasion of his own abilities, a willingness to cover up or “spin” the truth of a story or event so that his own role in the matter would be better served. But he was also a man who, once decided on a course of action, stuck to his decision. He believed in honor and in principle. Once he committed himself to the cause of Revolution against Britain, he did not waver. His steadfast command of the Continental Army in a war that lasted seven years and that involved numerous defeats and setbacks, incredible difficulties, and a few strategic victories, not to mention an American public largely indifferent to the cause of Revolution after the first year of war, was largely responsible for the final victory and American independence.
Ellis believes that whatever failings Washington might have had, his virtues were ultimately more important. The name Ellis more than once summons up to describe Washington is that of Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen-soldier who returns to farming after success in battle, only to answer the call to serve his nation when it came. Washington’s willingness to serve, his civic mindedness, his patriotism, these were among his defining traits.
Washington assumed this role at least twice in his public career. After the French-Indian Wars, he returned in 1759 to supervise his farms in Virginia and build his holdings as a plantation owner. When Revolutionary fervor began to stir in the late 1760s and early 1760s, he at first ignored or seemed indifferent to them but gradually was caught up in the momentum of resistance to Britain. At first his motives were private—he was irritated by the prices charges to colonials for British goods, and found himself in considerable debt, though his own careless spending was also to blame. (Many plantation owners faced similar debt.) Gradually he began to express solidarity with other like-minded colonials and committed himself to the cause of independence. He accepted election as a Virginia delegate to the first Continental Congress. When he was called to command the Continental Army, he agreed to do so and to accept no payment for his services, though he had been preparing to lead the army for months. Later, after the war against Britain was won, he returned to Mount Vernon again to farm in retirement, only to answer the call to chair the constitutional convention in 1787 and then to become the first president of the United States in 1789. Ellis even suggests that as crisis loomed in the late 1790s, Washington would have come out of retirement a third time had he been called on.
Ellis’s ability to distill a convincing image of the man Washington from the voluminous archive of papers surrounding him--private correspondence and statements as well as military and presidential letters--is a major key to the success of this book. It is one of the few biographies I have read that projects a convincing and human portrait of its subject. He evokes Washington as a real being, a man who walked and talked on the earth. Washington had a forceful but untrained writing style. He was capable of pandering to his superiors, those whom he wanted to impress, but for the most part his letters are free of florid rhetoric. They are written in a straightforward prose style that effectively expresses his personality and thinking. Through his own words we are exposed to Washington’s mind in a way far more direct than second-hand accounts could achieve. Ellis does not hesitate to interpret, second-guess, and analyze Washington, and by doing so he teases out the inner contradictions and motives of the man.
Ellis pays particular attention to Washington’s interest in his own public image. Even in his first two major military battles, one ending in the ignominious slaughter at Ft. Duquesne of a French emissary by one of Washington’s native American allies, and the other an outright defeat and surrender at Ft. Necessity, he was careful to present his own role so as to present himself in a favorable light. Washington lacked skill as a military strategist in his younger years, and even in the Revolutionary War his battle plans were often too complex and over-scripted. He never seemed to acknowledge his lack of experience or skill as a military strategist. Luck and circumstance and persistence served him well. He won the battles he needed to win, or that others won for him, as at Saratoga; he seized opportunity where he found it. He was unwilling to give up, both because of his commitment to winning the war, and also because he knew that defeat would bring dishonor to his name. Gradually the British were worn down.
Washington as an older man, especially after the Revolutionary War, began to think about his own mortality at what to modern readers may seem too early a point in his life. He began thinking about the eventuality of his own death a decade before it actually occurred. Ellis emphasizes that while others (such as Jefferson) wanted to think of Washington in the 1890s as a doddering old man he in fact remained intellectually sharp to the end. (He died while taking his pulse). As part of this concern with mortality and posterity, Washington thought much about slavery and about the slaves he owned. Ultimately, after years of inclining one way and another, he came to oppose slavery, but for various reasons, some altruistic and others self-serving, he could not or at least did not free them during his lifetime, choosing instead to liberate them in his will. But at least he did liberate them, an act which came as the result of years of thinking and worrying over slavery. Ellis suggests that Washington believed that if he did not free his slaves his reputation after death would suffer. At the same time Ellis makes clear that Washington freed his slaves because he really had come to believe that slavery was unjust. Unfortunately, many of his peers, including Jefferson, did not take the point.
Although Ellis does show Washington with all his warts and human imperfections, he makes clear the virtues and character traits that made him the great leader he became, the most venerated and respected leader in all of American history, excepting perhaps Lincoln. Washington was not just a figurehead. His service as general in the Revolutionary War did more or less automatically predestine him for election as the first president. But he was an instrumental force in chairing the Constitutional Convention and in forging the concept of a true federal government rather than a loose assemblage of states. This belief came directly from his experience as general of the continental army—in that role he had to beg a weak Continental Congress and an often unresponsive confederation of states for supplies, money, and soldiers. A confederation of states that would cooperate fitfully and undependably with one another would never work in the long run. Washington led the Continental Army to victory not because of the Continental Congress and the states it represented but despite them. Strength, he realized, comes from unity, not disunity. (Lincoln makes the same point in the Gettysburg Address.) As President he helped determine the future shape of the United States government. The decisions he made, and of which he was a part, set a course the nation would follow for decades if not centuries. Whatever he might not have been, Ellis’ well written, eminently readable biography ultimately demonstrates why (without explicitly saying so) Washington genuinely deserves the title of “father of our country.”