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His Excellency: George Washington

February 11, 2018

Ron Chernow’s biography of our first president boasts 800+ pages and seems to leave no stone unturned in Washington’s life. Chernow’s writing is a bit more than utilitarian, his insights are helpful for the bigger picture, and his story includes surprises and textbook facts alike. I highly recommend it if you want to know a good deal about the foundingest of our fathers.

 

Joseph J. Ellis’s biography, however, called His Excellency: George Washington, was a much better read. In just 275 pages, he thrilled me with his writing, with a condensed—and therefore more concrete—story and time line, with a great appreciation for his subject, and with a deep understanding of the time in which he lived.

Chernow and Ellis tell similar stories, of course: about an inscrutable man whose temperament of stoicism concealed strong passions, about the stages of his life (youth and early adolescence, the Revolution, retirement after the war, and as President), about the historical accomplishments and political acrimony of his times. Both confront his ownership of slaves, in both the context of the 18th century and the confines of his character. Chernow provides much that is personal—Washington’s constant dental problems, his strained relationship with his mother, his careful attention to dress and home furnishings, his joy and anguish over children and grandchildren, and his confused heart concerning Sally Fairfax. Ellis mentions these only briefly and instead focuses on GW’s public persona and significance to Americans and history. In short, it’s as if Chernow sat in dozens of dusty rooms, reading everything there is to read about our first president, and then itemized it all for us, while Ellis shares a good story and perspective about his pal, George Washington.

The two most significant and lasting impressions I have from Ellis’s book are his writing and the acrimony of the political scene during the nation’s first years. Although Chernow certainly included the disagreements, maneuvering, attitudes, and deceit in the power struggles of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and GW’s administration, Ellis’s condensed approach helps those attitudes sound familiar, that is, more complicated than the press would have you believe.

Anyone who thinks the Founding Fathers were all of one mind and friends all around just doesn’t know her history. Many of the men behind the familiar names resorted to venom and dastardly deeds (of varying degrees) to promote their arguments and win political fights. Benjamin Franklin’s nephew hated GW with a passion, publishing virulent and spiteful diatribes in his newspaper. Thomas Jefferson, GW’s secretary of state, encouraged and helped to spread all kinds of innuendo and false rumors about Washington’s monarchical tendencies. Thomas Paine wrote a perfectly nasty essay about Washington, Patrick Henry never supported him, and his once good friend, James Madison, eventually turned on him, too.

Through all the muck and mire, Washington maintained a dignity and honor that has yet to be matched by his successors. In fact, Ellis acknowledges the “marble” qualities of the man in his preface, where the writing first engaged me and where he announces his hope to illuminate the man behind the monument:

If you went to the Tidal Basin or the Mall you could read the magic words on the Jefferson or Lincoln Memorial. . . . But there were no words on the Washington Memorial. . . . Jefferson, it seemed, was like Jesus, who had come to earth and spoken directly to us. Washington was like God Himself, levitating above it all. Or, as I eventually came to describe him, Jefferson was like one of those dirigibles at the Super Bowl, flashing inspirational messages to both sides. Washington was aloof and silent, like the man in the moon.

You might wish to regard the pages that follow, then, as my attempt at a lunar landing.

Ellis’s engaging language includes a lucidity in his themes that comes to the fore in chapter 6. There he states the astonishing success and accomplishments, as well as the abiding and lasting effects, of Washington’s presidency: “Washington’s core achievement as president, much as it had been as commander in chief of the Continental army, was to transform the improbable into the inevitable.” As Ellis sees it, “everything he did set a precedent”—the cabinet system, the veto, foreign policy, the State of the Union, and much more. Additionally, Washington tried (but failed) to establish Native Americans in “secure sanctuaries,” he made provisions in his will to set his slaves free, and he remained cautious during the French Revolution, as word of the Terror crossed the Atlantic and Jefferson’s “hopelessly romantic illusion” led him to dangerous thoughts.

After reading these two biographies, I’ve acquired a real appreciation and admiration for what I consider our last great president. For me, his successors, even the great ones, will never match him.

 

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