The following is a book review of His Excellency George Washington by Joseph Ellis.
In this book, Joseph Ellis contends that among America’s founding fathers, Franklin was the wisest, Hamilton the most brilliant, Jefferson the most intellectual, Adams the greatest scholar and Madison the most sophisticated politician. Yet they all acknowledged Washington as their superior (although it’s not certain they believed this at all times). Explaining his greatness is a minor historical industry because, unlike his great contemporaries, George Washington rarely explained himself. Joseph Ellis attempts to do just this in His Excellency George Washington.
Great Britain would have avoided plenty of trouble by granting Washington a commission. In leading Virginia troops during the French and Indian War he showed talent, but he was refused commission — a crushing disappointment. Although the war was not over, he gave up his dream of a military career and resigned in 1758. Washington belonged to minor Virginia gentry, so marrying the extremely wealthy Martha Custis in 1758 was a step up in a sense for his social standing. He quickly, settled into the life of a Virginia planter: fox hunting, horse racing, gambling and ordering clothes and luxury goods from England. But he also kept a watchful eye on his properties. He was quick to accuse merchants of cheating or to sue over contract disputes, and he grew increasingly angry at mounting bills from his English agent. During this time, his correspondence and diary consist primarily of business matters, lists, weather reports and daily chores. As a consequence, many bored historians have concluded that he lacked depth. Ellis merely concludes that he was sensible. After all, Washington died wealthy, unlike Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and most Virginia aristocrats. More significant, Ellis adds, is that his resentment of England had less to do with unfair taxes than simply with being economically dependent on a nation that refused to treat him as an equal. Dressed in his old uniform, Washington attended every 1775 meeting of the Continental Congress during debate over choosing a commander in chief, quietly letting it be known that he was available. Since he was already chairman of four committees on military affairs and universally respected, he was the obvious — and unanimous — choice.
Most historians agree that Washington made a mess of the defense of New York in 1776, but he then recovered brilliantly with victories in minor engagements at Trenton and Princeton. After two more defeats, he lost Philadelphia in 1777. Then followed the miserable winter at Valley Forge, caused, Ellis emphasizes, more by the inability of colonial governments to supply the army than by the severe weather. Leaving Valley Forge, Washington fought the inconclusive Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. Until Yorktown three years later, other battles occurred but none with Washington in charge. General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, followed by the French alliance in early 1778, made victory inevitable but only in hindsight. Achieving it required a massive infusion of French troops and money, amazing luck and persistent British incompetence. Even more unlikely, it required Washington’s half-starved army to seem threatening to British forces who outnumbered them even after Yorktown.
Throughout the war, Washington appears to be the only founding father who mattered. All European governments assumed that he represented America. After French forces arrived in 1780, their leading officers debated whether or not Washington was a great general. They concluded that it was impossible to tell until he led a proper army. But that didn’t matter as the French loved Washington as a person anyway. Ellis claims that out of Washington’s wartime service came many of his major contributions to the nation. Although he yearned to fight, he had the genius to realize that sometimes, fighting was a bad idea. Waiting and threatening could sometimes be very effective. Ellis adds that Washington’s posture during the Revolution contributed to a general understanding of the importance of civilian government. For eight years he deferred to the Continental Congress and 13 colonial governments, all of which failed him repeatedly. Then he retired — a rare example of a revolutionary general not making himself dictator. That experience, Ellis points out, also led Washington to understand and fight for the ratification of our Constitution. Those years of trying to extract support for his tattered army convinced the general that America desperately needed a central government with power to levy taxes to defend the nation. Revolutionaries disagreed, pointing out that it was taxes levied by a remote central government that provoked America’s revolt. Correctly viewing the Constitution as counterrevolutionary, many vehemently opposed it. Its passage would have been inconceivable without Washington’s support and the expectation by a respectful country that he would be the first president.
Some historians portray Washington as founder of the "Virginia dynasty" that produced four of the first five US presidents. Ellis insists he was not. A Virginia party existed, but Washington did not support it. As the dominant state in the union, Virginia took for granted that its interests came first; its party’s leader, Jefferson, agreed. This meant, for example, that agriculture was all-important, and commerce a bad thing. Washington never took this position, and he never stopped trying to convince Americans that they belonged to a single united nation. He was the country’s first and greatest nationalist — another major contribution to the nation’s sense of self.
It is said that competent historians get their facts right, good historians draw conclusions - but the best historians have insights. Ellis' insights are very helpful in understanding Washington as a leader. Ellis declares: He was "that rarest of men: a supremely realistic visionary….His genius was his judgment." As a general he made mistakes but not one that put the war at risk. As president, he made all the right decisions. In closing, Ellis contends that His Excellency George Washington was the only great American who was recognized as great as soon as he stepped on the stage and whose reputation has never declined.