Hot on the heels of John Adams comes this new book about George Washington; I’ve mentioned before that I don’t usually read a lot of pure history books or biographies, but in this case I made yet another exception at the suggestion of my brother-in-law.
Like many founding fathers, but moreso, George Washington survives more in legend than in historical fact. Some of the most well-known tales—his wooden teeth, his chopping down of a cherry tree—are apocryphal. And perhaps with good reason: Washington left very little personal correspondence, and almost no insight into his private mind. Ellis takes greats pains to emphasize that Washington was well aware of his stature in early American politics, and so avoided harsh criticism or gossip, either in public or even in private letters. Anything juicy that he did leave was burned, at his request, by his wife Martha when he died. Contrast this with the surfeit of written correspondence left by John Adams, and you can see why we must necessarily fill our popular imagination with Parson Weems’ fables.
For a biography of Washington, His Excellency is a slim tome1, but Ellis manages to use the space well: the text is dense and probing, but I never felt as though it became abstruse.
I mentioned that Washington was revered figure: David McCullough noted it in John Adams, and Ellis certainly notes it too, even naming his book after one of Washington’s oft-used and curiously exaggerated nicknames, namely “His Excellency.” What I can’t for the life of me figure out, and I never felt as though Ellis explained it to my satisfaction, was why Washington was universally respected and admired. His skills as a general paled in comparison to those of the British generals, and even some of the other generals leading the Continental Army; he was a good president insofar as he set excellent precedents, but never accomplished the sort of things that his successors would. Much of his life as a public figure seems positively ornamental, and there is little to recommend Washington as an extraordinary person except that he had a stoic and loyal character—when, at one point after the war, he more or less had the opportunity to lead a military coup for total control of the new country, he scolded the plotters and naturally didn’t do any such thing.
In so many other respects, Washington fails to capture the imagination, except perhaps in a poetic sense: a middle-of-the-road Virginia planter, a refugee from British modes, prone to melancholy; hardly a dragonslayer, and yet ultimately a character with which we identify and empathise and even admire.
Far from being a complete record of Washington’s every action, speech, and honor, His Excellency merely tries to illuminate some of the craggier faces to the Washington legacy, trying to intuit why he sometimes acted how he did, and why the man grew to be the first American hero, and damn near its emperor, as well.
- Douglas Freeman’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography, by comparison, spans 7 volumes[↩]