Inside the monolith of Washington's mind
Supreme self-control gave him the confidence to be modest where others would have been king
We know the myths - throwing the silver dollar, chopping down the cherry tree - both false, it turns out. And we appreciate the accomplishments - leading the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and steering the national government through its infancy. But, in comparison with the other Founders, we know comparatively little about George Washington's character and personality.
Joseph Ellis sheds light on this question in "His Excellency," a short but absolutely fascinating biography of Washington that explores the character of this legendary figure. Ellis has already written well-received books about the character of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, but "His Excellency" is even better.
The book is based on the now nearly complete edition of Washington's papers as well as voluminous research by previous scholars. While this is a huge amount of material, it is in key ways incomplete. Washington - always conscious of his place in history - edited his papers as he aged and deleted anything that reflected badly on himself and others. Moreover, Washington was not much of a diarist and frequently neglected to mention major events. Finally, Martha Washington edited the papers and destroyed most of the correspondence between them. Only three of their letters are known today, compared with 1,000 surviving letters between John and Abigail Adams.
The book follows the biographer's traditional commitment to chronology, but it takes a selective approach and provides less detail about the broader forces at work in the Revolutionary era than do other historians who have tackled this subject. Ellis's primary interest is the way that the major events of Washington's life shaped his character and personality.
He concludes that some of the man's most important characteristics were evident during his earliest military experiences in the French and Indian War: He was serious and proud, showed great attention to detail, demonstrated political dexterity, and displayed extraordinary physical courage. But it is not a uniformly flattering picture. Ellis concludes that as a young man Washington was overeager to prove himself, impulsive, and sycophantic.
His military record in the Revolutionary War is more mixed than most Americans realize (Washington lost more battles than he won), but his perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds carried the day. Ellis does a particularly good job in describing the challenges: At one point, his army consisted of just 3,000 able-bodied men. Notable is the extent to which Washington was willing to take advice to restrain his more headstrong impulses. He wanted to engage the British Army in a frontal attack in hopes of securing a decisive victory, but aides talked him out of such a rash step for fear that it might wipe out the Colonial troops entirely.
Ellis is particularly interested in Washington's willingness to give up power when he could have held onto it. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington made a point of formally resigning, and again at the end of his second term as president he quietly retired. Many other revolutionary leaders - Ellis cites Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, and Mao - made the opposite decision and refused to leave the stage.
He concludes that Washington gave up power because he knew that history would be the judge of his accomplishments and he believed that posterity would look more favorably on those who left the final judgment to others. Ultimately, it was Washington's self-control and self-confidence that allowed him to make this choice.
No biography of a Founding Father would be complete without consideration of the slavery issue. Ellis believes that Washington always had a more progressive attitude toward slavery than was typical for the time and that as he aged he became increasingly uncomfortable with it for both personal and economic reasons. In drafting his will, he freed the slaves who worked at Mount Vernon and took care to ensure that no loopholes would allow his heirs to thwart his intentions. Moreover, he instructed that the younger slaves be taught to read and write and supported until they reached the age of 25, while the old and infirm were to be "comfortably clothed and fed." Washington, notes Ellis, was the only politically prominent Virginian to free his slaves.
This is not a hagiographic work. Ellis is perfectly comfortable pointing out Washington's missteps and flaws. Nonetheless, the final verdict is highly favorable. He concludes that Washington "was that rarest of men: a supremely realistic visionary, a prudent prophet ... devoted to getting the big things right. His genius was his judgment."
Washington, Ellis notes, is all around us: "on Mount Rushmore, the Mall, the dollar bill, and the quarter, but always as an icon - distant, cold, intimidating." Because of his enormous stature in our national memory, it is easy to forget that Washington had imperfections. Identifying these shortcomings does nothing to detract from his central place in American history. To the contrary, it only underscores how extraordinary Washington's accomplishments really were.
• Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president of the American Council on Education.