January 20, 2005,
What better time to take a closer look at our first president than Inaugural Week? Published in late 2004, historian and author Joseph Ellis's latest biography, His Excellency, is a timely glimpse at the man he appropriately dubs "the Foundingist Father of them all," George Washington. Ellis's thoroughly enjoyable and eminently readable book is an excellent follow up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers.
Ellis begins his book with a seemingly simple question: "Within the gallery of greats so often mythologized and capitalized as Founding Fathers, Washington was recognized as primus inter pares . . . . Why was that?" Despite the seeming simplicity of the question, the answer remains one of the more elusive issues tackled by scholars of early American history. As Ellis notes, "Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute." And yet they all looked to Washington, who had little more than a grade-school education, as their unquestioned leader a man without whom the new nation might never have been born or survived once hatched.
So Ellis sets out to answer that question by taking a brief (275-page) look at the man and his life. His book is less a study of the minutiae of Washington's life than an examination of the events that shaped his character. He opens the story with Washington's central role in both the beginning and the prosecution of the French and Indian War, painting a picture of a passionate, fearless and often lucky young officer in the Virginia militia. Washington gained lasting fame as a result of his actions in that war, beginning with his commanding role in the first military skirmish between colonial forces (with Indian support) and French troops. Though Ellis describes this first action as both an "assassination" and a massacre of a French officer and his patrol by colonial and Indian troops commanded by Washington, the young colonel's printed account of it in which he claimed to be charmed by the sound of bullets whizzing by his head elevated him to minor hero status in Virginia.
But Washington's military record in the French and Indian War was mixed at best, and unimpressive at worst. He successfully established and trained a regiment of quasi-professional soldiers in Virginia, but led them to defeat and surrender to the French at Fort Necessity, in part, as a result of his poor planning (suffering casualties 20 times greater than his French attackers). He later played a key role in the French rout of British and colonial troops at the Monongahela, taking command after a British general was cut down in battle and rallying shell-shocked troops to a safe retreat after suffering massive casualties. Though a key figure in what came to be known as the "Massacre at Monongahela," Washington's reputation only grew, most likely as a result of his enormous courage under fire. Ellis explains that, after taking command, Washington had two horses shot out beneath him and four musket balls pierce his coat, but he escaped without a scratch. His "specialty," says Ellis, "seemed to be exhibiting courage in lost causes."
Ellis's young George Washington was an ambitious man, both in his military career and in his personal life. His marriage to Martha Custis, one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia, brought with it a social standing and wealth that his military exploits alone would not afford him. Ellis highlights Washington's strong desire for a commission as a British regular, and his embryonic distaste for the British government that resulted from the repeated denial of that objective. His early ambitions also blinded him at times, letting political considerations regarding Virginia's role in the New World cloud his judgment on the battlefield in one episode described by Ellis.
Upon resigning his commission in 1758, Washington thought his military career was completed, and he "retired" to the life of a Virginia gentleman farmer. But his experience with the British mercantile system plunged him into debt and led to greater resentment against Great Britain. He viewed the British mercantile system in which Virginia farmers were wholly dependant on English agents for the sale of their crops and the purchase of provisions and, in his case (though to a lesser extent than Thomas Jefferson), all the fineries of the Old World as a form of economic enslavement. His reaction to the notorious Stamp Act and other British duty acts calling for a boycott of British imports in the Virginia legislature stemmed very much from his business dealings within that system. Thus, Ellis explains Washington's growing resistance to English authority not so much a matter of political philosophy as one of hard-earned personal experience. One gets the sense in reading Ellis's book that Great Britain might have had a much easier time of it if it had not personally and repeatedly slighted George Washington (a point also made about Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands The First American).
His leadership role in Virginia during the lead up to the Revolutionary War was rewarded when he was elected to both the first and second Continental Congresses. Knowing war was increasingly likely, he refitted his military uniform and ordered books on warfare before leaving for Philadelphia. Once there, he was chosen as commander-in-chief of a continental army.
If there is a shortcoming in Ellis's chief objective to write an engaging biography of Washington in a "modest-sized book" it lies in his attempt to explain why the selection of Washington as the first commander-in-chief of the American military was "a foregone conclusion" to colonial leaders. As Ellis notes, "[t]hat question has provoked a lively debate across several generations of biographers and historians." Why would it be so apparent that Washington who had a fortunate though not particularly successful military career to that point, who had never led more than a regiment into battle should lead the entire military effort on behalf of the fledgling states? One answer offered by Ellis is that he was a Virginian, and it was a politically expedient to assure Virginia's participation in the war effort. Another often explained by John Adams as a joke was that Washington was always the tallest guy in the room. At six-foot-two or three, Washington was an impressive physical specimen for his time. It may simply have been his widespread fame at that point, stemming from his early exploits in battle. Ellis describes a scene of 500 riders escorting Washington into Philadelphia in early May, 1775. No doubt it was a bit of all of these things. But one can't help but think that Ellis shortchanges the reader in explaining this key aspect of Washington's rise to prominence. The events that followed his eventual success in nearly a decade of war with the British as a result of dogged persistence and almost inhuman capacity for patience, and his subsequent role in the constitutional convention and unanimous selection as our first president all stemmed from this crucial, albeit inevitable selection as commander-in-chief of the continental Army. Ellis seems to give only a flavor of the reasons for that selection and leaves the reader wanting more.
Ellis's account of Washington's prosecution of the Revolutionary War shows a mature Washington a passionate man supremely in command not only of his men but also of his own passions who hoped to score a knock-out blow to the British in a major engagement, but who eventually realized (with the advice and counsel of his close family of military officers) that grinding it out was the only possible way to win the war. Ellis sets forth an honest account of the many mistakes made by the novice General Washington from overly intricate four-step battle plans that never got past step one to his decision to dig in and defend Manhattan against overwhelming British forces. But he also describes an extraordinarily diligent, brave and patient leader. Washington eventually won the war by sheer force of will perhaps coupled with inept British military leadership, more than a little luck, and the eventual assistance of the French. His victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown firmly cemented his place in the constellation of heroes of his time. And the surrender of his commission at the end of the war as with his eventual retirement from the presidency at the end of his second term showed the new nation and the world that America was not the domain of one man.
Washington's support and eventual central role in the formation of a new, constitutional government stemmed from his experience in leading the war effort. The loose affiliations of the states often frustrated Washington's efforts at a regular military, greater financial support, and the stability necessary to win the war. He recognized the need for a strong central government the kind he eventually presided over once again not as a result of European political theory, but from the school of hard knocks, where images of blood on the snow at Valley Forge from undersupplied soldiers without shoes indelibly marked Washington.
Ellis's account of Washington from young soldier to retired president paints a noble picture of the father of our country. But Ellis is neither overly glowing nor exceedingly critical of Washington. He takes on the apparent contradictions in Washington's personal life his ownership of, at one time, more than 300 slaves (freed in his will) and his seemingly insatiable appetite for land (accompanied by a frequent resort to the courts to protect his interests, even after retiring from the presidency) but does so in the context of the subject's time, not in light of modern mores. He further notes the contradictions in Washington's public career, allowing the reader to compare Washington's pretensions to empire, embracing the title "His Excellency" during his military career and touring the countryside in a custom-made chariot drawn by enormous horses, with the surrender of his massive public authority not once but twice in his lifetime. He explains that Washington's restraint was often driven not simply by goodwill, but for his concern with a deep and lasting legacy as the father of a country. But Ellis does so without passing judgment on the many bumps in the road.
An interesting aspect of Washington's story perhaps the one most relevant to modern times is the extraordinary partisanship that evolved late in his first term and carried over into his second. Ellis's portrayal of Thomas Jefferson a member of Washington's original cabinet as the agitator in the formation of political parties is hardly flattering. But coupled with the pretensions to a military state of Alexander Hamilton resulting in a scheme that tarnished to some degree Washington's retirement Jefferson's manipulations give lie to the notion that modern politics is as divisive as ever. As Ellis would tell you, it has been thus since the founding of this great nation, and thus it ever shall be.
Shannen W. Coffin is a former deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.