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'His Excellency: George Washington'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page BW02

HIS EXCELLENCY: George Washington •

By Joseph J. Ellis. Knopf. 320 pp. $26.95

With two somewhat improbable bestsellers (Founding Brothers and American Sphinx) and a Pulitzer Prize under his belt, Joseph J. Ellis doubtless is now the most widely read scholar of the Revolutionary period, and thus probably the most influential as well -- at least among the general public, if not the scholarly community, where the highest respect probably goes to Gordon S. Wood. But Ellis enjoys sufficient professional as well as popular renown that his decision to weigh in with a reconsideration of the life, character and reputation of George Washington almost certainly will have wide and perhaps salutary ripple effects.


Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1796) (National Portrait Gallery)

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His Excellency: George Washington immediately calls to mind, and deserves favorable comparison with, Edmund S. Morgan's Benjamin Franklin. Published two years ago, that meticulous but relatively succinct biography focused more on its subject's character and the broad themes suggested by his life than on the quotidian details with which conventional biographies are crammed. Followed as it was by biographies of Franklin by Walter Isaacson (2003) and Wood (2004), it set off a re-examination of the mythology surrounding its subject and has permitted us to see him in new, interesting and revealing ways.

To what extent (if any) Morgan's book influenced Ellis is unclear, but when Ellis says that "we do not need another epic [Washington biography], but rather a fresh portrait focused tightly on Washington's character," he declares in effect that he is doing what Morgan did. It is a pleasure to report that he has succeeded. The Father of His Country, Ellis correctly observes at the outset, "poses what we might call the Patriarchal Problem in its most virulent form: on Mount Rushmore, the Mall, the dollar bill and the quarter, but always an icon -- distant, cold, intimidating." Ellis's aim is to get beyond the monument into the man, and he does so in a convincing, plausible way.

Convincing, that is, to me. Biography is among literature's most interesting and appealing endeavors but also among its most elusive. We can know the facts about another person's life, but we can only guess about the person within. Ellis's interpretation of Washington is based on a good deal of hard evidence, but he no doubt would be the first to acknowledge that his speculation about the inner man is just that: speculation. It is all the more so in the case of Washington, "the most notorious model of self-control in all of American history, the original marble man," who was in fact, Ellis is at pains to show, "an intensely passionate man, whose powers of self-control eventually became massive because of the interior urges they were required to master."

To understand Washington, in Ellis's view, we must look not to the general and the president but to the young man, in his early and mid-twenties, who went west from Virginia as a militia officer into what was known as the Ohio Country. There, from 1754 to 1759, he had "a truly searing set of personal experiences that shaped his basic outlook on the world. Instead of going to college, Washington went to war." Forces under his command suffered defeats; he witnessed the massacre by French and Indians of British and American soldiers, and "for the rest of his life . . . remembered the scenes of the dead and the screams of the wounded as they were being scalped"; he came to understand that what we now know as guerrilla warfare was the only way to fight in the American wild, and he mastered it; he showed himself to be "physically brave" and "personally proud," and "his courage, his composure, and his self-control were all of a piece."

Serving on behalf of Virginia's British overlords, he developed a contempt for and resentment of them -- especially their military leaders and colonial agents -- that motivated him for the rest of his life, particularly during the Revolutionary War. Concerning his state of mind after the victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown, Ellis writes: "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." This volatile mix of contempt and resentment (compounded, often, by envy) is a common phenomenon that can have any number of psychological consequences; in Washington's case, Ellis suggests, it was "bottomless ambition," but ambition that he successfully (for the most part) disguised under his self-created shield of reserve, reticence and aloofness.

It is no less important to know that Washington harbored resentment and/or envy of those in the Virginia upper crust who had more land, money and social position than he did. He was largely a self-made man, not the aristocrat he is commonly assumed to have been. His marriage, though it seems to have become rewarding and close, "initially [was] more economic than romantic," and Ellis takes an unsentimental view: "nothing he ever did had a greater influence on the shape of his own life than the decision to marry Martha Dandridge Custis. Her huge dowry immediately catapulted Washington into the top tier of Virginia's planter class and established the economic foundation for his second career as the master of Mount Vernon." That deep insecurities remained despite the standing his marriage afforded him is suggested by his "avaricious attitude toward land," which "he seemed to regard . . . as an extension of himself" and always gave his most focused attention.

So: fierce ambition, steely self-control, submerged resentments, a passion for land. As Henry Wiencek put it in the title of his book about Washington and slavery, "an imperfect god" -- but, in the eyes of most of his countrymen then and now, a god all the same. When Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army, "both the New York and the Massachusetts legislatures wrote congratulatory letters addressed to 'His Excellency,' which soon became his official designation for the remainder of the war." He was not a monarch and later emphatically resisted all efforts to push him in that direction -- "He was not an accident of blood; he had chosen and had been chosen" -- but his "semi-royal status fit in the grooves of his own personality and proved an enduring asset as important politically as the Custis inheritance had been economically." His dignity, probity, equanimity and decency were beyond question. Standing 6'2", he was a head taller than most others, physically as well as psychologically commanding.

At the end of the war he could easily have assumed an American throne, but at Annapolis in 1783, after the signing of the peace treaty with Britain, he resigned as commander in chief; "he had sufficient control over his ambitions to recognize that his place in history would be enhanced, not by enlarging his power, but by surrendering it." He also understood that the new country, having thrown off one monarchy, had no appetite for one of its own -- but that it needed a strong central government in order to stand united, that "accepting the presidency meant living the central paradox of the early American republic: that is, what was politically essential for a viable American nation was ideologically at odds with what it claimed to stand for."

As president Washington worked ceaselessly, if often quietly, to establish the federal system we have taken for granted for generations, and did so over the opposition of many who believed that this betrayed the goals of the Revolution. He knew that "American independence, if it were to endure, required a federal government capable of coercing the states to behave responsibly," and achieving this is the great accomplishment of his eight-year presidency. He also was primarily responsible for locating the nation's capital city on the banks of the Potomac, for engaging L'Enfant to design it, and for closely overseeing its early construction.

For all his aloofness and his conviction that he was a superior human being, he was capable of courtesy, kindness and compassion. His attitude toward slavery evolved slowly and was always compromised by his own economic investment in slaves at Mount Vernon and his other lands, but he was "the only politically prominent member of the Virginia dynasty to act on Jefferson's famous words in the Declaration of Independence by freeing his slaves." He sought, with little success, to reach "a just accommodation with the Native American populations." Still, the final judgment must be that he was the ultimate realist whose "life was all about power: facing it, taming it, channeling it, projecting it. His remarkably reliable judgment derived from his elemental understanding of how power worked in the world." That he exercised his own immeasurable power to the lasting benefit of humankind is a legacy almost beyond compare in the world's history. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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