During pauses from becoming completely mentally and financially prepared for fatherhood, I’ve had the pleasure of breezing through Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency, a fine, modestly-sized biography of America’s great unknowable founder, George Washington.
Ellis has written a wonderful book that provides a large amount of insight into the motives and mindset of George Washington, a man whose austerity, dignity, and aloofness created an aura of authority and mystery around that has not dissipated with time. Rather than coming closer to knowing him over the subsequent years, Washington has remained as lifeless as an ivy-covered statue in our popular understanding. His Excellency is a great, eminently readable study of the personality and greatness of this remarkable man.
Here are a few highlights from the text:
-Ellis contends that Washington’s studied silence masked the fact that he wrestled with his own turbulent passions. Again and again, he to peels back layers of correspondence and to see Washington as a man determined to rise above his mammoth ambitions and ego to project a serene authority. The self-control and character he built in this fashion allowed him to serve and lead this fledgling nation out of its infancy in a way that probably no other man would have been able. Examples of his vigilant self-surrender serving as a benefit to a larger cause include his choosing to adopt a defensive posture midway through the Revolutionary War (against his own highly aggressive instincts), voluntarily surrendering all military and political authority at the conclusion of the war (for this reason, Americans should thank God that Washington was different than Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Lenin, Mao or any other man from history placed in a similar position), and his refusal to accept a third term as president (though he would certainly have won).
-Famously, Washington had wooden teeth. Less known is the fact that he also had wooden eyes.
-George Washington is alive and living in Boca Raton, Florida according to the drunken homeless man who wandered into traffic in front of my car last night.
-Out of Washington’s internal battles arose a tough-minded political realism. He understood innately that people and nations act not out of ideals but out of interest. He was never prone to sentimentalism or clouded by utopian visions like many of his contemporaries (Jefferson, most notably). For these reasons, he harbored no illusions about the reliability of volunteer militia regiments, he welcomed France’s involvement in the Revolutionary War only warily, he was an immediate skeptic of the weak central government of the Articles of Confederation, and he scoffed at the high-minded platitudes of the French Revolution. Washington’s understanding of the evil in himself attuned him to the evil in the world. As Ellis writes, his internal struggles “inoculated him against the grand illusion of the age, the presumption that there was a natural order in human affairs that would generate perfect harmony once, in Diderot’s phrase, the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
-During cabinet meetings, George Washington would delight the rotund John Adams by tickling him. Sometimes Alexander Hamilton liked to join in, but he would often get too rough and the three men would have to be separated.
-Washington was not a particularly religious man. He attended church on occasion but did not take communion, and letters from him do not seem to reflect any reservoir of feeling or thought on the matter. If there was an overarching ethic to his life and attitudes, it wasn’t the Protestantism of his upbringing, but the older model of Roman stoicism – accepting of his Providential fate over and above his own desires.
-Late one night in a candlelit Philadelphia tavern, George Washington and Ben Franklin went to third base with each other. Of course, in 1700s terms, “third base” means “writing a respectful but affectionate note of correspondence.”
-On his death bed, Washington requested, “Someday, place my visage on a quarter-dollar coin, but make sure it looks like I’m not wearing a shirt.”
-One of the most fascinating themes in the book involves tracing the evolution of Washington’s thoughts on slavery (he owned over 300 slaves). Up until the Revolution, he appears to have never given the matter a second thought. During the war, the experience of commanding free black men under the banner of individual liberty awoke him from his numbness. Upon his return, he also became acutely aware of the economic problems and contradictions of slavery. He didn’t like the existence of slavery, or the fact that his hands were bloody in the mess, but true to form, he refused to allow it to become an issue of idealism or sentimentalism. He wrote to a friend of his intentions to “liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings” – yet he hesitated until he could do so in a way that made economic and pragmatic sense. That occasion did not arise until his death. His will specified that all slaves in his possession be freed, and that an education and financial support be provided to them. While we might wish for Washington to have made a more unambiguous moral statement about the question of slavery, such behavior would have been out of character for him.
-Washington was just over 6’3”, well above average for a man of his day. In fact, as a young man he briefly played power forward for the Williamsburg Continentals as a rebounding defensive specialist. He was an 18th century Mark Madsen.
If George Washington were alive today, the first thing he would say would be “let me fly a helicopter.”