Books to read: Washington by Ellis

I have just finished Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency George Washington, a book that, while painstakingly accurate in historical detail, reads like a novel and places Washington where he belongs, among the towering moral geniuses of the human race.

Washington commanded the war that liberated us from the British, and presided over the  government that made us a nation.  But then as now, what people remarked about Washington wasn’t his generalship (he lost more battles than he won) or his policy initiatives (he left most of those to the brilliant younger men of his cabinet):  it was his character that mattered.

Contemporary poet Francis Hopkinson called him “the best and greatest of men that the world ever knew,” and a remarkable number Americans agreed with this extreme formulation of praise.

What is character?  It is the moral force of one’s personality, as expressed in one’s words and, most importantly, in the patterns of one’s actions.  Character is who I am as a moral being, and judgment of character is what I do when apply morality to my daily life.

I may leave my kids to be looked after by you, but not by him — because I know and trust your character, but not his.  One man may burn down his business, and I’ll be certain it was an accident, because I know him to be of good character; another may do the same, I will immediately assume it was done to collect the insurance, because I know him to be weak or corrupt or both.

Ellis focuses sharply on Washington’s character, and throws light on aspects of it that I haven’t seen discussed before.  The portrait that emerges from His Excellency is that of a supreme realist, inspired to action by the sternest moral code but unable to delude himself about the power of selfishness in shaping human behavior, including his own.

As a commanding general, this cold-eyed realism allowed Washington to restrain his aggressive nature against a superior enemy that could not be defeated, as he first hoped, in a single set-piece battle.  As President, he was able to cut through the ideological fog generated by Jefferson and the other Virginians, and endow the Federal Government with authority enough to stand up the new American nation, the United States, against a multitude of factional and regional interests.  (I am a Virginian, and second to none in my admiration of Jefferson, Madison, Mason, and the rest:  brilliant and deeply influential men.  But their fears of British conspiracies, and loathing of treacherous American “Anglomen,” are almost inexplicable in the hindsight of history.  The most probable explanation touches on their characters, which never approached the greatness of Washington’s:  they believed these absurd notions because it was politically expedient for them to do so.)

As a private person, Washington’s realism forced him to struggle with the consequences of his status as a liberator who happened to own some 300 slaves.  In this too he differed from the other great Virginians of his generation.  From a callow indifference typical of the planter class (he called slaves “this species of property”), to an undestanding of the contradition between Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence and his own tyranny over his slaves, to a final judgment that slave-owning was incompatible with his character and place in history and a settling of moral accounts in his will, Ellis’ Washington grapples mightily with his self-interest and his knowledge of right and wrong, and emerges morally triumphant because he is unwilling to lie to himself.

Money quote from Ellis:

There it was, a clear statement of his personal rejection of slavery.  As we have seen, he had been groping toward this position for many reasons and for more than thirty years, more gradually than we might prefer, more steadily than most of this fellow slave owners in Virginia.  He was, in fact, the only politically prominent member of the Virginia dynasty to act on Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence by freeing his slaves.  He had been brooding about how to do it for over five years, procrastinating within a tangle of financial factors, and the drafting of his will represented his ultimate recognition that the only way to do it was, well, to do it.  Though conscience, his deep moral revultion at the blatant wrongness of human bondage, surely played an important part in his decision, his motives were not purely or merely moral, as they seldom were.  For he knew that posterity was watching, and that his statement on this score would help clear his legacy of the major impediment to his secular immortality.

Character is an internal force; yet Washington knew that, operatively, in the context of a moral community, character can only be what other people make of you.



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