‘The Foundingest Father,’ Ubiquitous at a Key Moment

His Excellency: George Washington, by Joseph J. Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95.

For someone who specialized in graceful, perfectly choreographed exits, George Washington has a way of returning over and over again. Children may know less and less about the distant past (a recent survey found many believe Gandalf to be the victor over the Spanish Armada). But the late 18th century continues to be sacrosanct for Americans looking, a little too intently, for the wellsprings of our greatness at a time of growing alienation at home and around the world. It was inevitable that an enterprising historian would write anew on Washington, and it was probably inevitable that Joseph Ellis would be the one. A native of Alexandria, Va., Mr. Ellis grew up within shouting distance of Mount Vernon and, despite countless school visits as a young boy, never lost his reverence for the man he calls “the Foundingest Father of them all.” Indeed, he has a vivid, slightly horrific memory of seeing Washington’s dentures on display in the 1950’s, though Mount Vernon officials insist they were never shown to the public until the 1980’s—only one of countless ways in which our memory of Washington does not always square with the facts.

Mr. Ellis’ new biography is modest in scale— he deliberately set out to write a readable one-volume life—but it comes freighted with heavier expectations than most. It’s not just that the subject is our least approachable founder, perfectly symbolized by the impenetrable monument that bears his name, its tiny apertures so high off the ground that no one can see into them. It’s also that the writer in question is on a mission to rehabilitate his reputation after a nasty turn in the press three years ago. Not long after accusations of plagiarism were hurled at luminaries like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mr. Ellis committed a different faux pas, claiming in interviews and lectures that he had served in Vietnam and scored the winning touchdown for his high-school football team. He was not the first to embroider the story of his war record (Molly Ivins reveals in Shrub that a young George W. Bush, while running for Congress, claimed to have served “on active duty” during Vietnam). And no accusation of plagiarism has ever tainted Mr. Ellis’ work (which includes important studies of Jefferson, Adams and the founders as a whole). But still, this Walter Mitty–ish episode was disturbing to his admirers and to generations of his students at Mount Holyoke, the tranquil college in Massachusetts where he teaches.

After a series of apologies, Mr. Ellis set out to write this book, and it’s oddly fitting that Washington is the subject. He’s not only our most famous founder, but as Mr. Ellis points out, our most paternal as well, and America’s complicated relationship with him is fraught with Freudian anxieties. That is certainly true of Mr. Ellis as well, who almost seems to be going back to the original source (of America? Of his childhood interest in history?) for approval.

After a thoughtful meditation on Washington’s aloofness, the book moves swiftly over one of the great lives of the 18th century. In Mr. Ellis’ sure hands, we learn the true drama of a career that nearly ended before it began and never seemed all that far from disaster. The story opens in 1753 with a young George Washington in the most dangerous place in America, on the fault line of empire, in a no man’s land between French and English positions in western Pennsylvania. In that forlorn spot, the Falluja of its day, world interests were about to clash that would change Europe and America forever, and the 21-year-old Washington provided the spark, his very presence in those woods leading to violent clashes and then world war between imperial armies. It’s amazing to relearn how bad his debut was—first he presided over a massacre of French soldiers, and then, after witnessing a retaliatory massacre of his own troops, he was forced to sign a confession of military brutality. But even at a tender age, Washington had a genius for survival. Not only did he narrowly miss dying in these brutal encounters, but he was able to spin them into a lifelong reputation for resilience. A contemporary wrote that Washington’s near-death experiences suggested that he had been spared by Providence “for some important Service to his Country.”

Mr. Ellis also takes us quickly—a little too quickly—through the formative early experiences of young Washington, including his strange relationship with his mother (more might have been offered here, to continue the Freudian theme), and an early crush on an unattainable local girl whom he was still writing to, very chastely, near the end of his life.

Following his youthful misadventures in the French and Indian War, Washington enjoyed much more success in his next campaign—his self-invention as a Virginia squire in the top bracket of colonial society. This he accomplished in one fell swoop when he married the wealthy widow Martha Custis. Their marriage may not have been a great love affair like the one uniting John and Abigail Adams, but it was a solid business partnership that brought genuine benefits and presumably some happiness to both (sadly, Martha destroyed his letters to her, and historians have been wondering about their real feelings ever since). They spent enormously on outfitting their home with the accouterments that English society favored (implausibly, Washington lavished money on trifles like velvet capes and felt hats), and Mr. Ellis is persuasive that Washington’s political estrangement from England in the 1760’s was linked to his vast indebtedness to London merchants.

The outbreak of revolution in 1775 presented Washington with the opportunity he’d been waiting for to distinguish himself in command of an army, but it also presented grave danger, and everything he had built would have been destroyed if the Americans had been unable to defeat the English, as indeed seemed likely. Mr. Ellis makes a good case for Washington’s courage and skill as our first commander in chief, one who attacked boldly when necessary and restrained (barely) his impulse to attack when prudence so dictated. He certainly made mistakes, especially early in the war, but he grew into his role, outlasted internal challenges and survived more near-death experiences before humbling the haughty British at Yorktown (it will pain Republican readers to learn that this gigantic American victory was only made possible by French military support). Mr. Ellis is brilliant at evoking the hardships of the war, including what he regards as the seminal experience of Valley Forge, and he skillfully brings to life the ragtag Continental Army, a “cavalcade of wild beasts” who decorated their uniforms with fur and feathers and defied regulations about hair length—the Boston Red Sox of their day.

Securing American independence would have been greatness enough for most heroes, but Washington would be summoned two more times—first to save the new government from weakening itself into nothingness, and then to occupy and define the Presidency when that new office was created by the Constitution. In both cases, he played his role to perfection, lending natural majesty to what had been royal prerogative, acting decisively when necessary and, perhaps most importantly, refusing to act when assuming too much authority would have jeopardized the fragile new republic. It’s inherently difficult to claim that actions not taken are the source of greatness, especially in our nation of steroid-driven overachievers. But Mr. Ellis makes a convincing claim that Washington’s greatest victory may have been over himself—for as he and his closest confidants knew, he loved power deeply, and savored every accolade, even while pretending that he did not.

Predictably, the Washington that emerges in these pages is a most attractive figure—handsome, physically peerless and endowed with a force of character that overwhelmed the other founders. But to Mr. Ellis’ credit, he also explores the darker side—Washington’s vanity, his impetuosity as a commander, his occasional brutality (several Indian tribes were wiped out when they got in his way) and the great original sin of our freedom-loving republic: a helpless dependence on human bondage. Mr. Ellis doesn’t pay enough heed (only a lonely footnote) to last year’s breakthrough study of Washington and slavery, Henry Wiencek’s An Imperfect God. But still he pays far more attention to this complex issue than the hagiographers of the mid-20th century did, and the result is a finely nuanced portrait of a man who was often progressive for his time and place (Washington freed some of his slaves at the end of his life, and allowed slaves to serve in the Continental Army—the last time the American military would be integrated before the Korean conflict), but not as often as we would like him to be. Like the monument named after him, he remains a study in whiteness, but new scholarship is adding important shading and texture.

As with previous books, Mr. Ellis brings a craftsman’s eye to His Excellency. It’s beautifully written, and its modest length fits its subject well. Occasional generational echoes resonate (Vietnam is suggested in one discussion of the English empire’s “arrogance of power”—J. William Fulbright’s term), but they enhance rather than detract from the narrative. It’s no easy challenge to say something new about the most lionized figure in American history. Even in his day, he was too famous. King George III, going mad, hallucinated that he might come back as his enemy’s reincarnation, and even Washington himself grew jaded by the endless requests to sit for painters and the droves of tourists flocking to Mount Vernon. But Mr. Ellis has successfully avoided the myth, the “smothering blanket of lullabies” that he calls “more wooden than his alleged teeth.” In its place, he has built something far more human and approachable.

A real George Washington is most welcome, especially as we contemplate the choice facing us this week, and it’s perhaps another example of providential timing that Washington is appearing again when his country most needs him. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his face is all over the new Gilbert Stuart exhibit; inside the New-York Historical Society, a display case at the big Hamilton exhibit contains an early draft of Washington’s Farewell Address, a prescient warning against murky entanglements and unsavory allies; and in His Excellency, we encounter exactly what we have been missing in the city named after him. We’re reminded of what the Presidency was when Washington invented it—a platform for the calming of tensions, the realistic appraisal of domestic and foreign challenges, and the cool-headed assessment of opportunities and risks without excessive appeals to emotion. Brave without foolhardiness,spiritualwithout zealotry, and always willing to change course after a mistake, George Washington strikes us, once again, as an American we can learn from.

Ted Widmer is the director for the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.