Saturday, March 21, 2009
To this landmark biography of our first president, Joseph J. Ellis brings the exacting scholarship, shrewd analysis, and lyric prose that have made him one of the premier historians of the Revolutionary era. Training his lens on a figure who sometimes seems as remote as his effigy on Mount Rushmore, Ellis assesses George Washington as a military and political leader and a man whose “statue-like solidity” concealed volcanic energies and emotions.
Here is the impetuous young officer whose miraculous survival in combat half-convinced him that he could not be killed. Here is the free-spending landowner whose debts to English merchants instilled him with a prickly resentment of imperial power. We see the general who lost more battles than he won and the reluctant president who tried to float above the partisan feuding of his cabinet. His Excellency is a magnificent work, indispensable to an understanding not only of its subject but also of the nation he brought into being.
The basic premise of this book is the author wanted to write about Washington the man and what made him tick. Why did he do the things he did, what drove him on? Who was he really, did he have a heart? What were his thoughts and desires?
A tall order, considering all of Washington's private letters and correspondence were burned after his death by his wife, Martha. We'll never know for sure what sort of sweet endearments he wrote to her, or what his private thoughts and feelings were when he was commanding the Continental Army and watching his men die of smallpox and walk barefoot and bleading in the snow at Valley Forge. What did he really think of Thomas Jefferson when he found out Jefferson was scheming to make people believe Washington was growing senile and was under the thumb of Alexander Hamilton? We'll never know for sure, but this author did his best to come up with some pretty good assumptions and conjectures, but nothing concrete due to the lack of primary source materials.
Washington has been described as larger than life, stalwart, strong, a good soldier, majestic on his white destrier - leading his troops to victory and the final win of the American Revolution at the Battle of Yorktown. Yet, he was an enigma. He was close mouthed, quiet, a listener. He had never been one to shoot his mouth off and chatter on like a John Adams. He took in the scenery and listened to what his men told him. Then he made decisions. From some of his letters that were saved, which were from his war correspondence or dull letters to British merchants or tradesman, it is possible that Washington had quite a voluble temper and one of his greatest achievements was the fact that no one knew it. He was always in control in view of the public and his troops as a commander. It was to hide his fiery emotions that he kept in check. More than one acquaintance commented on the fact that they could see this is how he was. They could imagine the emotions brewing beneath the surface, yet Washington would never show his real emotions, because it was his honor and reputation at stake. He came across as cold and aloof - above the fray. He was perfect for the job of commander and the first president of the United States. If ever there was a man born for the job, it was Washington.
According to this book, Washington's driving force was how he meant to be perceived by all. His reputation and honor were crucial to him. Because of this, he kept all his regular correspondence dull and dry and to the point with no emotion or feeling. Just simply orders. If he did say or write something that he felt might come back to haunt him, he went back and edited it years later for posterity's sake. Many of his actions and orders during the Revolutionary War were based on how he felt it would show him in history and he did the same as president and even in his last will and testament in which he finally freed all his slaves. Probably the only ones who really knew him for who he really was were his close servants, Martha and his close personal friends. Not a sign of the living and breathing human George Washington with a passion or sense of humor comes across in any of his writing.
I can't say I really liked the man after reading this book. I got the feeling the author didn't either. It wasn't a very grandiose or flattering portrayal of Washington. He came across as often petty, opportunistic, holding a grudge and parsimonious. Land was a big issue with him and he didn't hesitate in taking the lion's share when it was offered. He married Martha Custis, a rich widow who owned a lot of land in Virginia, even though he loves another woman (albeit she was married.) His marriage is made to sound like a calculated move on Washington's part to raise him in status and wealth. It was a good marriage for both, although there were no children (it is believed that Washington was sterile since Martha had two children from her previous marriage.) Ironic since he is known as "the father of our country."
I won't go into any more details, of which there were plenty, but the book was not the most entertaining read, I found it a bit of a chore, thankfully it was short. This was not like a David McCullough book, it reminded me more of something I had to read as a history major in college. High on fact and details. Washington is depicted as this great icon of the American Revolution and founder of the Nation, but at the same time, I had the unsettling feeling that we'll never know what he was really like. Most of this book was the author's impressions and not much on how Washington's contemporaries viewed him. I couldn't help getting the feeling this author had an axe to grind when it came to George Washington. Still, I do plan on reading his biography on Thomas Jefferson eventually. At least Jefferson's letters were saved which will shed more light on him than Washington.