Presidential Biography Reading Challenge: His Excellency, George Washington
I recently announced my intention to read a biography on every American president sometime between now and the next Presidential election.
After realizing this means a little over ten biographies a year, I may be rethinking my timeline, but I did just finish Joseph Ellis' slim portrait of George Washington, His Excellency.
About seven years ago, my wife and I found ourselves in Virginia and decided to visit Mount Vernon, the elegant plantation of George and Martha Washington which sits on the bank of the Potomac river in eastern Virginia. It is a beautiful and sprawling place, preserved for posterity as one of the great and lasting loves of Washington's life. I remember being awed by its scope, but remember feeling like Washington was too distant of a figure to ever understand completely.
In His Excellency, Ellis helps brings Washington into focus a little more, albeit only partially. I've read some Ellis before, and his approach to history is different than most. He doesn't believe that long and involved biographies are necessary in order to learn about a subject. While I agree with him on principle, in His Excellency, Ellis fails to present a thorough picture of the most important aspect of Washington's life: his presidency.
Part of this is not exactly Ellis' fault. There are little surviving letters and diary entries from Washington, especially when compared to John Adams, and what does survive rarely shows us the inner workings of his mind or his heart. Washington as a man is the hardest to peg down, the reverence with which we still think of him even now obscuring our reflections.
In the introduction, the author shares why it's so difficult to accurately portray Washington:
Washington 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. As Richard Brookisher has so nicely put it, he is in our wallets but not in our hearts.
These factors, Washington's distance and a lack of personal writings, make a complicated issue for anyone trying to humanize our first president by separating the myth from the man.
Still, Ellis won a Pulitzer for Founding Brothers, his portrait of several leading figures of the Revolutionary generation and their complicated relationships, so readers are in good hands with him. He excels at succinctly summarizing large swaths of information for analysis, inserting his own observations and best guesses when necessary.
And like any good biographer, he is thorough. The book begins when people first start to take notice of the young Washington at 21 as a resourceful and courageous young man on the Western Frontier, then recaps what little we know about his birth in 1732. It ends shortly after his sudden death in 1799, after making his usual rounds around Mount Vernon in a rainstorm. All the parts in between, from Washington's rise as a prominent member of the Virginia planting class, to his brief interlude between the war and his presidency, are mentioned in some detail.
But the chapter "First in Peace," which covers Washington's direction of the infant federal government and its expansion of power, is more about the personalities that surrounded Washington during his years in office rather than on the man himself. It focuses on the infighting in Washington's cabinet, particularly between Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton, showing only glimpses of how Washington felt when he happened to mention it. It portrays Washington the president as distant and aloof, yearning to get back to his beloved Mount Vernon and out of the public eye. Ellis argues that this is exactly how Washington governed, preferring to keep his influence out of the majority of matters that crossed his desk that first year while making a handful of very important decisions. Out of all of the chapters, this one is the longest, and yet it still feels incomplete.
Even so, I did learn a lot about Washington from this book. He was a pinnacle of self-restraint, evidenced by when he first surrendered command of the Continental army after the war and when he surrendered executive power after his term. But underneath it all, he was actually wildly ambitious, using the backdrop of the American Revolution and its grand story to thrust himself onto the world stage in a way that was still becoming a Virginia gentleman. He was likely infertile, an ironic trait for someone deemed "the father of his country," but this fact also helped to ease fears about his legacy, since he could not establish a monarchy and pass on power to his children. There were myriad times that he barely escaped death on the battlefield, and this helped add to the myth that he was a savior sent from heaven at the exact time that his country needed him.
And perhaps he was. It is difficult to tell in hindsight just how different, or nonexistent, our country would be had George Washington not commanded the Continental army that delivered the decisive blow to the British, or come out of retirement to lead it during its most important phase. Ellis argues, and I tend to agree, that even more important than what Lincoln achieved by holding the Union together through the Civil War was Washington's decision to avoid further foreign entanglements during the fledgling country's first few years. He was a pragmatist, less of a scholar and visionary than a man of practicality and earth, but still managed to rise above the luminaries of his age, beyond Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and perhaps even Franklin, to leave his indelible mark on our democracy more than any of them.