The Original George W.

It has been a hard time for those of us who enjoy popularized histories and historical biographies.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, perhaps best known for Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Stephen Ambrose author of, among many other volumes, Undaunted Courage and Citizen Soldiers were both caught in plagiarizing material.  Most likely these errors were the consequence of haste and sloppiness, rather than malice.  Much worst was the apparently deliberate historical fraud perpetrated by Michael Bellesiles who ended up resigning from Emory University for his misdeeds.  Bellesiles wrote Arming America which won Columbia University’s Bancroft’s Prize for History.  Columbia University’s Trustees later voted to rescind the prize after Bellesiles’s scholarly crime became clear.  On the basis of irreproducible evidence, Bellesiles argued that in colonial America ownership was far less ubiquitous as previously supposed. It was not lost on the cultural elites that such a result could effect our perceptions of the original understanding of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the “right of the people to keep and bear arms.”  The original credulity of the Bancroft Committee and academia as a whole towards Bellesiles’s book is a testament to its rhetorical convenience to those for whom the Second Amendment is an inconvenient nuisance.

In between the careless errors of Kearns and Ambrose and the malicious ones of Bellesiles falls the deceitfulness of Joseph Ellis.  Ellis was caught by the Boston Globe in a series of self-aggrandizing lies told to his friends, colleagues, and students.  Ellis really spent his military career lecturing at West Point, but he told others not only that he was in Vietnam, but that he was a platoon leader in the storied 101st Airborne Division.  Ellis also claimed that he served on the staff of General William Westmoreland, the American Commander in Vietnam, giving him extraordinary credibility when teaching a course on that era at Mount Holyoke College.  Again, people were credulous about Ellis’s Vietnam claims because Ellis was anti-war in outlook.  The anti-war sentiments of a Vietnam War hero had greater claim to moral authority. For his sins, Ellis was suspended without pay for one year from his endowed chair at Mount Holyoke

And yet, Ellis is a wonderfully gifted writer, who won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his book the Founding Brothers: The American Revolutionary Generation.  There is a legitimate argument that Ellis is one of the most knowledgeable historians of the Revolutionary War Era. Despite these credentials and gifts, it is difficult to read Ellis’s new book, His Excellency, about George Washington, without nagging doubts caused by Ellis’s personal mendacity.  Fortunately, Ellis used the opportunity of this new book to return to historical scholarship.

His Excellency, is short (less than 300 pages) and does not pretend to be a comprehensive documentation of the events of Washington’s life and career.  Rather, Ellis tries to see beyond the marble bust vision we all have of and attempts to understand the motivations and outlook of George Washington the person.  Ellis does his readers a favor and resists the modern temptation to devote much time to Washington’s early infatuation with Sally Fairfax.  Instead, Ellis endeavors to understand the apparent contradiction in Washington’s personality.  How does one resolve the dilemma of a Washington having sufficient ambition to acquire a sizable estate at Mount Vernon, to successfully lead a rag-tag army against the most powerful empire of the time, and to become president of a fledging nation; while at the same time resisting the inevitable temptation to become an American Napoleon?

Ellis makes the case that Washington’s ambitions were indeed an important and even a transcendent motivation.  However, Washington’s unique quality was his realization that the approbation of history, rather than the more fleeting admiration of contemporaries, was the higher ambition.  There were at least four important instances when Washington eschewed acquisition of personal power and responded to the greater ambition of the respect of posterity.

  1. The successful effort by Washington at Newburgh to thwart a cabal of senior officers from leading the Continental Army to Philadelphia to compel the Continental Congress to pay the troops established the principle of civilian control over the military.
  2. Washington retired to Mount Vernon after his military victory over the British in the War of Independence and avoided the rise of an American Napoleon at the cost of democratic rule.
  3. The fact that Washington set a precedent by only serving two terms re-enforced popular sovereignty.  This precedent lasted until this century, broken by the four terms of Franklin Roosevelt.  This precedent is now formalized in the Twenty-Second Amendement to the Constitution.
  4. In Washington’s will, he distributed his wealth evenly among his heirs.  This guaranteed the dissipation of accumulated wealth and prevented the rise of a Washington family dynasty.  Washington’s legacy was political and institutional not familial.

Washington did not so much resist the temptations of power, but embraced the greater ambition of fathering a nation, a republic.

Ellis described Washington as the “rarest of men: a supremely realistic visionary, a prudent prophet… His genius was his judgment.”  It was most certainly not Ellis’s intention, given his personal Left-ward political leanings, but Ellis evokes a direct, but implicit comparison with the most recent George W. — George W. Bush.  Of course, the analogy like all analogies is imperfect, yet Ellis nonetheless finds the source of Washington’s abilities in his single-minded clarity.  Ellis was describing Washington, but he could just as well have been writing of Bush, when he observed that his unfailing judgment “did not emanate from books or from formal education.”  Rather, “Washington’s powers of judgment derived in part from the fact that his mind was uncluttered with sophisticated preconceptions.”  It is not so much that Washington, in Ellis estimation, or Bush now, is an anti-intellectual know-nothing; but rather they both recognize that clarity and firmness is many times more important than nuance.  For the wise, details are important in developing and implementing decisions, but they can be debilitating when they contribute to confusion rather than clarity or provide excuse for desultory inaction.  Read His Excellency, and understand both George W’s.

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