History Channel miniseries follows the Virginian’s path from British officer to Continental Army commander to revered first president
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is executive producer of the History Channel miniseries Washington, premiering February 16 at 8 p.m. ET. The three-night series, narrated by Jeff Daniels, includes dramatizations and interviews with leaders including former President Bill Clinton and General Colin Powell as well as top authors and historians, including Pulitzer Prize recipients Annette Gordon-Reed, Joseph Ellis, and Jon Meacham. Goodwin’s most recent book is 2018’s Leadership in Turbulent Times.
What was it like to immerse yourself in Washington’s life? I have lived with dead presidents for 50 years, thinking about them when I go to bed at night, waking up with them in the morning. But the one president I had not had the chance to live with—the one whose presidency set the standard for the rest—is George Washington. You can imagine how thrilled I was when History Channel asked me to be part of this miniseries. The last 18 months have been a great journey. We started working on Washington not long after I finished Leadership in Turbulent Times, which explores the unique journeys of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as they grew through adversity and confronted the challenges and contours of their times. I was able to look at President George Washington through that lens and learn about his transformation from a young man seeking to rise as a military officer into a determined revolutionary who led a rag-tag army against the British Empire. Like “my guys,” as I often call Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and LBJ, Washington learns from mistakes. He develops the confidence to surround himself with strong-minded people. He becomes a great leader when his ambition for self becomes an ambition for something larger—to lead a fledgling nation that will become a beacon for the world at large and a lodestar for every president who follows.
Which relationships and experiences most profoundly shaped young George Washington’s character and ambitions? His father, Augustine, died when he was just 11 and his relationship with his single mother, Mary Ball Washington, was central to helping shape him. As Washington biographers Edward Lengel and Alexis Taines Coe say, Mary Washington was strong, focused, ambitious, and savvy. She managed her estate carefully and transmitted to her son the need for self-discipline and a strong work ethic. General Colin Powell explains, “Heaven knows how she handled all of that, but she did, and she played such an important role in his life to give him that structure of character, of competence and of believing in yourself.”
Unlike other Founding Fathers, Washington had scant schooling. Washington is not remembered for being an intellectual like Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, and other contemporaries. His formal education ended when his father died and instead of going to school in England like his half-brothers, he developed skill at surveying and eventually inherited land and became a farmer and plantation owner. As Joseph Ellis explains, “The education of George Washington was experience rather than schooling. John Adams went to Harvard, Thomas Jefferson went to William and Mary, George Washington went to war.”
When named to lead the Virginia Militia, Washington is a novice at command. What enables him to perform in this role? He’s ambitious and has a will to succeed. As historian H.W. Brands explains, “When he commands the Virginia militia he discovers, first of all, he has an aptitude for military command. People will follow him; people will listen to him.” He is physically brave. He has the physical attributes to be a commander. He has this almost instinctive commanding presence but also understands, “Aha, I can do this.” However, he also makes serious mistakes and learns from them. As Washington biographer Edward Lengel aptly notes, “George Washington was not born great. He took a journey to greatness.” That’s one of my favorite lines of the series. It tells the viewer what they can expect to see over the three nights.
How did his service in the French and Indian War influence Washington? Nowhere does Washington make mistakes more glaring than on his early missions as a British commander in the Ohio Country and during the French and Indian War. There’s horrific carnage, but he escapes unscathed. In fact, he has two horses shot from under him, and bullet holes through his coat, but he’s unhurt. Joe Ellis says, “For the first time you hear him talking about Providence. He doesn’t talk about God, but he talks about Providence and that luck. He survives that battle.” And General Powell explains, “Nobody who goes into battle for the first time comes out of battle the same way. When you see blood in front of you, when you see body parts laying all over. When you wonder did you do everything you could have done to make this more of a success or not a failure or reduce the number of casualties?”
At one point, Washington vehemently opposed those who wanted the colonies to declare independence. What changed his mind? As our experts make clear, an escalating string of British actions in the wake of the French and Indian War turned Washington into a reluctant revolutionary. The process of separation from Britain began for him, as it did for many colonists, when the Proclamation of 1763 banned colonials from settling in the Ohio Valley, even veterans who had been promised land in return for their service in the French and Indian War. Then came a sequence of events: The Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party. At what became known as the First Continental Congress, delegates agreed on an unanimous boycott of British goods by the colonies as a way to pressure the Crown to repeal the taxes and remove British troops from Boston. “More blood will be spilt on this occasion if the ministry are determined to push matters to the extremity,” Washington warned in October 1774. The following spring Washington’s fears were realized at Lexington and Concord. It was clear that the British would not back down. The only answer, Washington now believed, was war and independence.
During the Revolution, Washington’s forces often were on the verge of defeat. How did he achieve such an upset victory? He never lost hope. As President Bill Clinton says, “He was flexible as to means, firm as to ends. The second thing was he had great situational awareness. That is whether on the battlefield or in a political struggle, he always knew where everybody else was and he was very good at figuring out after early defeats what would produce the most positive result.”
Washington owned more than 300 slaves and energetically pursued any who fled his control. Describe how he navigated the uneasy path of advocating liberty and owning fellow human beings. There is no easy way to balance advocating liberty and owning people. Prosperity in Washington’s time was measured by land and if you had land you had enslaved people to care for your land. As Annette Gordon-Reed explains, “There’s no sense that you can have one without the other. And we look at this now and understand that this requires the oppression of human beings. But it was the source of wealth for Washington and the members of the Virginia gentry, of which he wanted to be a part and wanted to be maybe at the pinnacle of it.” Ellis says, “You want him to take a leadership position on the slavery issue and you’re going to be disappointed.” It is only upon the reading of his will—which provides for the emancipation of his slaves once Martha dies, except for his former valet William Lee, who is freed upon Washington’s death—that his changed feelings about slavery are revealed. “He’s the only member of the Virginia dynasty to do this,” Ellis says. “Jefferson doesn’t do it, Madison doesn’t do it. Patrick Henry doesn’t do it.’
Washington, the original man on horseback, could have been the king of America. Why did he instead embrace America’s new constitutional transfer of power? Washington could have led a military coup. He could have been a king, but his values would not allow him to be a king. Instead he chose to build a republic and will the power to the people. “He wasn’t interested in power,” General Powell says. “He had power.” He gave up power twice—once at the end of the Revolutionary War, when he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second administration, when he refused to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. When King George III hears Washington isn’t seeking a third term, he asks his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington will do next. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.” To which the king remarks, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” And then, as Jon Meacham says, “In giving up power, he ultimately ensured that he would achieve ultimate power.”
What are the best and worst moments of Washington’s years in office? Some of his best moments come in the first 150 days when he, the new Congress, and the powerful team of advisors he has assembled—Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph—create the Executive Branch, the Judiciary Branch, the first tax laws, and the Bill of Rights, and choose a site for a capital city on the site of what becomes Washington, DC. Some of his worst moments happen when the cabinet he built begins to split apart—when a partisan divide threatens the American experiment with failure.
What is George Washington’s legacy as president? He served two terms and led a peaceful transition from the highest power by returning to private life. So from his official title, to the tradition of creating a diverse cabinet of advisors, to length of service, to what powers the office would or would not possess, to influence over the military, to his personal and professional conduct, Washington shaped the role and function, formally and informally, of the presidency, inspiring future leaders for all time. Today, bringing the Revolutionary War and George Washington to life is more important than ever. The great protection for our democratic system, Lincoln counseled, was to “read of and recount” the stories of our country’s history, to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of our Founding Fathers. We ignore history at our peril, for without heartening examples of past leadership we risk falling prey to accepting our current climate of uncivil, frenetic polarization as the norm. In Washington’s Farewell Address, considered by many to be one of the greatest documents in American history, he warns against the baneful effects of sectionalism and the spirit of party.