Author & Speaker

Understanding George Washington

I just finished Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency, George Washington, a book I had dipped in and out of for research purposes without reading cover to cover. It is a worthy effort but one that seemed not as good as some of Ellis’ other excellent books (Founding Brothers, American Sphinx). Some of the problem, I think, is Washington himself. Some may be the structure Ellis chose for the book.
Washington, despite his place at the center of American affairs for 25 years, is an elusive character. His leadership style was based on a personal presence that was truly extraordinary, but which does not convey well through mere words. His own writings are sometimes pompous, often prosaic, occasionally heartfelt, but rarely brilliant. He also was very protective of his own image to history, and was virtually always on his guard.
One loss I feel keenly as a student of the era is the destruction of his letters to wife Martha. Though those letters might have been as mundane as others he wrote to overseers at Mount Vernon, I have to think there were glimmers in them of the real man underneath the carefully-managed image. Martha burned them after his death, probably in accordance with his wishes, but it was a great loss.
To address these obstacles to “getting” Washington, Ellis adopted a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to his subject. He skipped lightly over life periods that bored him (youth, GW’s time as master of Mount Vernon between the French and Indian War and the Revolution), and paid much greater attention to other periods. Though these are choices that a biographer has every right to make, I found them unsatisfying.
In his Jefferson biography, American Sphinx, Ellis forthrightly examined in depth only a few short periods in Jefferson’s life — times of crisis (writing the Declaration, purchasing Louisiana, etc.). Though I had a little trouble adjusting to the structure, I ultimately found it very effective in allowing me to get a deep sense of Jefferson at critical times without having to read the classic 800-page wristbreaker. It was a compromise, but one that worked very well indeed.
His Excellency struck me as a compromise of a compromise. Ellis was not willing just to select the key revealing moments of Washington’s life, but also was not willing to tell the whole life. I found it not as successful.
I note one other point. Ellis likes to say (and I paraphrase) that narrative is the highest form of analysis. This is a semi-self-deprecating dig at more ponderous writers who step back and pontificate, suggesting that Ellis is but a simple storyteller.
It is certainly true that Ellis is a smooth and talented craftsman as a writer, but his saying is a bit misleading. By far the strongest parts of His Excellency, I thought, were when he stepped back to explain some historical condition or trend. Ellis is wonderfully lucid and straightforward in those passages, and I watched carefully how he did it, shamelessly hoping to learn from him. And I decided it’s not a question of narrative versus analysis, but rather one of analysis-done-extremely-well versus analysis-done-not-so-well.