Sunday, February 21, 2010


(My first ever review, so be kind!)

A review of His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis (2004)

(Rating:5 of 5)

I have to admit I never really thought that much about George Washington. I knew who he was of course, (What American school child doesn’t?), but I never really thought that much about him. I always gave him the respect due him; he was the father of my country after all. As a history buff, I knew of his many accomplishments that were impressive; Commander-In-Chief of a winning effort in the Revolutionary War, presiding over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and of course the first President of the United States. Nevertheless, despite my immense interest in history, especially presidential history, he had never held my interest.

Washington, like a lot of other Americans that I had learned about in my early years such as Lincoln, FDR, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr.; was too damn perfect to be interesting. He was too good and too honest. The image was of cherry-tree cutting boy scout who could not tell a lie*. In his preface, Ellis describes similar experiences calling Washington the ‘man on the moon.’ Personally, whenever someone asked who my favorite president was I would throw him or her a curve ball and say ‘James K. Polk’**.

Joseph Ellis’s story begins with a young George Washington starting to make his mark in the French and Indian War, carrying a message from the Governor of Virginia to the Indian leader known as the Half-King. What is most interesting aspect about Ellis’ take on George Washington it that Ellis makes it clear that there are two George Washingtons. There is the George Washington the man whom he truly was, and there is the iconic George Washington of whom the public sees and knows. I am not talking about Washington the famous historical figure in comparison to the real person. I am referring to something that was very real during his life and something that of which he himself was consciously aware. It would start with his published Journal of Major George Washington and continue into his brief post-presidential years. It is important one understands that in order to understand him.

The real Washington was a man who often sought to better his position in society, but consequently he often felt out of place, an imposter in his position who is afraid he might be discovered. Although his family was wealthy, he was not a natural member of the Virginia gentry and as he moved into that role, thanks in no small part to the marriage to the widow Martha Curtis, he never felt quite at home in that position. He would engage in activities that were generally considered ungentlemanly. For example, Washington would always take an active interest in his money and investments, activity considered quite beneath a gentleman***.

Washington also lacked a classical education; he gained most of his knowledge from real world experience. This however, also caused him to feel inferior and tended not to participate openly in debates, rather in his legislative career he would be more of a behind the scenes type of operator.

“Washington was accustomed to leading by listening. During the Revolution, he had chaired countless councils of war in which junior officers presented options to the commander in chief. Before the war, George Mason had helped him understand the constitutional arguments against parliamentary taxation. In 1787, as in these previous instances, he already possessed a firm grasp of the elemental forces at work and a clear set of convictions about the strategic direction in which to lead those forces. Where he needed assistance---and he was completely comfortable about requesting and receiving it---was in mastering the vocabulary that more formally educated colleagues possessed, learning the intellectual road map to reach the destination that he had already decided upon.” p.175-6

In battle, George Washington became known as the American Fabius. It was a role he did not care for but assumed out of necessity. He was hired because of his outstanding reputation from the French and Indian War, but often felt overwhelmed trying to lead a rag tag army of farm boys against the best-equipped and trained army in the world. However, Washington prevailed decisively at Yorktown. Even with that famous victory, Ellis points out, Washington was still unsatisfied and he did not quite think of the British as being truly beat.

“Never a man to place his fate in trust, he had learned to mistrust everything emanating from London. Even the term ‘negotiations’ troubled him. What was there to negotiate? The British had tried to destroy him and his army, but he had destroyed them. He wanted the personal satisfaction that came with an unqualified, unconditional surrender. He wanted them to say that they had lost and he had won. He wanted his vaunted superiors to admit that they were his inferiors.” p. 138

Later as President, Washington would use his public persona to help create a unified nation. Ellis shows that Washington was very much an American nationalist who favored a strong national government, but being aware of the need for a unifying leader he often would silence his voice and allow the others to debate the point. This would not satisfy Thomas Jefferson who felt like he always lost out to Alexander Hamilton when push came to shove. However, it was not Hamilton who controlled Washington, rather Washington just agreed with Hamilton on about everything and that made Jefferson the nonconformist.

President Washington’s view was that the presidency had to apolitical was a rather foolish thing because it obviously could not. During the President’s second term, he became far more openly Federalist in his political appointments. This, ironically enough, is the exact same mistake King George III made in his view of the monarchy, and his real preference for the Tory party. (Although this is my personnel observation, not Ellis’. Also it is view neither President Washington nor King George III would have care for.)

One of the biggest issues in early America is the issue of slavery. George Washington first became a slave owner when his father died, while George was only eleven. (This boggles the modern mind. Imagine going up to a prepubescent kid and informing him that he is now the ‘owner’ of a small group of people.) Ellis chronicles Washington’s ever-evolving views on the subject, starting during the Revolution and continuing thought his life. Ellis holds the reason for Washington’s changing ideas about the subject is combination of ideological and economic forces at work at the same time. The most interesting thing I found was that Washington’s famous will in which he manumits his slaves is that will was actually Washington’s back-up plan. His original idea was to sell off land that he owned out west to pay for the cost of manumission. He came up with this plan as early as 1794 but the fall of land prices had delayed implantation, so the will was written in case Washington, who was already a decade older than most the men in his family generally lived to, did not live see it through.

Finally, one of the main themes in Ellis’s book was; what made George Washington great is not what he did but rather what he did not do. Washington voluntarily walked away from power, not only once but twice. Although the peaceful transfer of power may seem normal for Americans, the idea that a revolutionary military leader would do that is incredible. Unlike Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Vladimir Lenin, Washington would step aside where absolute power was available and let the Republic run its course. This was not always easy because he was not always happy with what occurred but Washington would not commit a sin against freedom and proclaim himself king.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know anything about our nation’s primary founding father. This book is rich and covers a broad range of subjects in the life of Washington; only some of which have been discussed here. This book can be read and enjoyed from the advanced history buff to the historical novice, and they will find the second half of the eighteenth century come to life with the ‘His Excellency.’

* A ridiculous story if there ever was one.
** I still like Polk, but that is for another article.
*** Ellis points out it was for this reason Washington died rich and Jefferson died poor.

{Video from the all-ready classic HBO 'John Adams' series!}