Reviewed by Mike Oppenheim
By Joseph J. Ellis
Among our 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.
Having written fine accounts of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, historian Joseph Ellis turns his attention to Washington, and the result is lively and thoughtful, perhaps the best single-volume work on the man in a generation.
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 — 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 coup. 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.
Everyone agrees 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 was 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: 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 — and, moreover, he proved — that sometimes fighting was a bad idea (even Robert E. Lee would fall down there). 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 worshipful country that he would be the first president.
Historians portray Washington as founder of the “Virginia dynasty” that produced four of the first five U.S. presidents. Ellis insists he was not. A Virginia party existed, but Washington detested it. 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 nation. He was the country’s first and greatest nationalist — another major contribution to the nation’s sense of self.
Competent historians get their facts right. Good historians draw conclusions. The best historians have insights. A master of his profession, Ellis presents no new facts or startling conclusions, but his insights not only ring true, they are a delight. For example, he blames colleagues for the low marks Washington has been given as an intellectual force.
Our founding fathers knew that they were founding fathers and wrote with an eye on posterity, turning out volumes of thoughtful prose as well as spirited personal correspondence. Washington never wrote down his thoughts, and Martha (a surprisingly unlovable first lady) burned their letters to each other after his death. Aside from military correspondence — largely complaints — Washington’s writing is relentlessly dull. Suffering historians can’t help feeling resentful.
Yet Washington knew what he wanted, declares Ellis. He was “that rarest of men: a supremely realistic visionary….His genius was his judgment.” As a general he made mistakes but never one that put the war at risk. As president, he made all the right decisions. This was definitely not the case with Adams, Jefferson and Madison, but the country was stronger by then.
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. Best of all, he deserved it.