His Excellency George Washington 
by Joseph J. Ellis.
Faber, 320 pp., £20, March 2005, 0 571 21212 3
Show More
Show More

The current US president likes to talk about his predecessor ‘the first George W.’, but it’s hard to imagine two politicians with more different styles. George Bush invites world leaders to barbeques at his Texas ranch, and gives nicknames to the members of his cabinet. (‘Pablo’ for the hapless Paul O’Neill; ‘Z-Man’ for Robert Zoellick.) George Washington, on the other hand, was so aloof that even his contemporaries tried to make light of the fact. According to one story, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Alexander Hamilton dared his fellow delegate Gouverneur Morris to clap General Washington on the shoulder and offer him a hearty greeting. It’s easy to imagine the response of President Bush to such an approach: Morris would have received a warm embrace, or perhaps a punch to the gut, and a friendly word or two. The first George W. was not so forthcoming. Morris placed his hand on Washington’s shoulder, and declared that he was happy to see his ‘dear General’ looking so well; Washington removed his hand and silently glared at him. Morris retreated into the crowd.

Washington occupied and defined the two most important roles in America’s early history: he led the Continental Army between 1775 and 1783, and was the first president of the United States, from 1789 to 1797. During this time, the 13 colonies established their independence from Britain, and the new constitution was ratified and put into practice. But Washington’s reputation is also dependent, to an unusual extent, on what he refused to do as a leader. In 1783, he resigned his commission and returned to his plantation at Mount Vernon in Virginia, declining either to direct the new civilian government or to convert the military into an instrument of political control, although the Continental Congress was in disarray, and some of his fellow officers believed that a military coup might be in the nation’s best interests. Again in 1796, as he neared the end of his second term as president, Washington opted for retirement rather than another four years of executive office, so setting a precedent for the regular rotation of the presidency that survived until Franklin Roosevelt’s third election victory of 1940. (In 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution ensured that FDR would be the only exception to Washington’s rule.) If his 1783 resignation preserved the infant republic from the threat of military dictatorship, Washington’s retirement in 1797 confirmed that American presidents could never emulate the monarchs of Europe. Both acts of personal renunciation were formative to the development of the United States, but these dignified retreats do not tell us much about Washington’s activities on the battlefield or in the presidential mansion. How should historians present a man whose fame rests partly on his disappearing acts, and whose character is shrouded by an almost painful formality? It’s no surprise that Joseph Ellis should now venture an answer to this question, having already produced biographies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as a book about the 1790s, Founding Brothers, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

Like many Americans, George Washington took arms against Britain in 1775 resignedly. He was 43, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War and a participant in the Atlantic economy. He had made his name (and his fortune) in the early 1750s, inheriting a plantation from his half-brother Lawrence and leading military expeditions intended to prise the Ohio Country from the French and their Native American allies. In the ensuing decade, he’d come to believe (correctly) that the British didn’t have much respect for colonial militias and their ambitious leaders, and to suspect (wrongly) that his London agent was bilking him both on his tobacco exports and on the fancy goods imported to embellish his mansion. The Washingtons were hardly natural revolutionaries: Lawrence had urged George to join the Royal Navy (his mother intervened), and he named the family plantation after Admiral Edward Vernon, the hero of Porto Bello. But Washington had had long experience of that combination of arrogance and condescension which defined British policy towards the mainland colonies in the two decades before the Declaration of Independence. When the eventual confrontation between the Redcoats and the colonists took place in Massachusetts in 1775, he was a natural choice to command the new Continental Army. Unlike many of his peers, he knew something about leading troops; better yet, as a Virginian, his appointment would demonstrate to the British that their colonial dispute extended further than fractious New England. In selecting Washington, over a year before the Declaration of Independence, the Congress demonstrated America’s national ambition.

Ellis’s account of the Revolutionary War is invigorating, even if he comes uncomfortably close to arguing that it was God who secured the victory. Divine intervention seems necessary because Ellis’s Washington is refreshingly fallible. He knew little about artillery or cavalry at the start of the conflict, and he displayed a recklessness that would surely have led to disaster, had it not been for the hyper-cautiousness (and, often, incompetence) of the British commanders. The pivotal battle of the war – at Saratoga in the Hudson Valley in October 1777 – was won by the maverick commander Horatio Gates, aided by a motley crew of New England militia. (For Washington, who hated Gates, the militia and New England, this was a bittersweet victory.) The prerequisite for the ultimate American victory was the intervention of France, made possible by the victory at Saratoga and by Benjamin Franklin’s diplomacy in Paris. The French proved to be maddening allies, forever scampering off to the Caribbean to protect their West Indian possessions or shrugging enigmatically at Washington’s overzealous plans for recapturing New York City. But the climactic encounter of the war – the siege of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781 – simply could not have taken place without the work of French engineers, and the almost cinematic good timing of the French navy. Washington had shown himself to be an unyielding commander, but it was Gates and France who provided the foundation for his victory.

Of all the founding fathers, Washington had travelled and read the least. Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean and, after dazzling local merchants with his grasp of bookkeeping, was sent at their expense to what is now Columbia University in New York. Franklin spent nearly two decades in Britain and France after the Seven Years’ War. Jefferson was the US ambassador to France after the War of Independence, while Adams occupied the same post in London. Washington, by contrast, never left the North American mainland, save for an unfortunate visit to Barbados in 1751 which resulted in his contracting smallpox and the death of his half-brother Lawrence. Similarly, the other founders derived from their prodigious reading vibrant and often discordant ideas about how a society should be organised. Madison emerged as a champion of balanced government; Jefferson indulged a flamboyant belief in personal liberty; Adams produced several exhaustive defences of the new constitution; and Hamilton developed a financial system that would (he claimed) set the United States on the path to global domination. Washington, meanwhile, said and wrote little on the great issues of the day.

This reticence might seem appropriate in a military commander, but not in the leader of a nation that spent at least two decades after 1783 trying to decide what kind of a republic it wanted to be. The Articles of Confederation of 1781 affirmed the union of the states, but only just. Congress struggled to pay the Continental Army’s salaries and pensions, to settle war debts and to secure foreign credit. In 1787, on the initiative of Madison and Hamilton, delegates from all the states (save for dyspeptic Rhode Island) met in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution. Most of the delegates said something; some said a great deal. Washington, who presided over the convention, said nothing at all. Only on the last day of proceedings did he rise to support a minor clause on Congressional representation, and even this intervention was probably designed to make him seem like an architect (rather than a spectator) of the ‘miracle at Philadelphia’.

The same pattern emerged during his presidency, though with less happy results. In 1787, Hamilton and Madison were in agreement on the need for a stronger union, and collaborated closely to promote ratification of the new constitution. By 1790, however, the nationalist camp had split. Hamilton believed that a strong central government and financial sector were the keys to national development. With an eye on the great innovations of the 1690s – the stock market and the Bank of England – he traced British success in the 18th century to the emergence of a financial class. But Madison and Jefferson saw things differently: the United States, unlike Britain, possessed limitless territory for the creation of an agrarian republic, and while the British countryside was still scarred by the inequities of feudalism and enclosure, white farmers in the United States could prosper without the help of speculators and bankers. Hamilton sought to make the states subservient to a single, national model of development; Madison, and Jefferson even more, believed that the federal government should merely support states and individuals in an agrarian expansionism that was already underway.

During Washington’s two terms in office, this philosophical difference grew into a national crisis. Hamilton presented a financial plan that confirmed the federal government as the nation’s economic master, and Philadelphia hummed with the activity of lobbyists, financiers and other moneyed interests who sensed opportunity. Madison and Jefferson became increasingly critical of Hamilton’s vision, and sought to counter his influence in Washington’s cabinet: first by trying to sway the president himself, and then by creating the Democratic-Republican Party to counter the Federalists. Washington had the authority to resolve this dispute; instead, he deferred to Hamilton – with whom he had served in the Revolutionary War – in ways that bewildered Jefferson and Madison, and eventually persuaded them that the president had lost his grip on affairs.

Ellis employs two strategies to protect Washington’s reputation from this charge. First, he maintains that Washington was a superb manager of men, and that his decision to delegate finance to Hamilton was the act of a great general who realises that he can’t be on every battlefield at once. Perhaps; but it’s worth remembering that Washington failed to preserve unity among the members of his cabinet, and to persuade Jefferson and Madison to share his enthusiasm for Hamilton’s genius. More troublingly, he retained his confidence in Hamilton even as the latter strayed into very murky waters after the presidency had been turned over to John Adams in 1797. In the middle of a ‘quasi-war’ with France, Hamilton devised a plan to create a massive new army to counter the supposed French threat. Washington not only agreed to lead the army but insisted on Hamilton as his deputy, in spite of widespread and well-founded rumours that Hamilton might use the military against the Democratic-Republicans, or march into Florida and Latin America in a pre-emptive attack against Napoleon’s purported American ambitions. Adams’s bold decision in 1799 to sue for peace with France put a stop to this decidedly un-republican scheme, but it’s clear that Washington had placed an alarming amount of faith in his protégé.

Ellis complements his argument about Washington’s skills of delegation by pointing to the president’s successes in the three areas where he took the reins himself: foreign policy, Indian affairs and the creation of the new federal capital. But Ellis’s claims here are also open to question. American foreign policy was held captive by the consequences of the French Revolution, and distorted by the fact that the emerging political parties picked sides in the fight. Washington’s lasting fame as a foreign policy guru derives from his Farewell Address, with its Kissinger-like cadences about the primacy of self-interest in international affairs; yet it was an act of almost sublime disinterest – Adams’s decision to send negotiators to France – that ranks as the most visionary act of foreign policy of the 1790s. Adams knew that he would divide the Federalist party (and ruin his chances of re-election) by suing for peace, but he stunned Hamilton and Washington by doing so anyway.

Ellis presents Washington as a principled defender of Indian rights who was undone by the acquisitiveness of the settlers. In fact, he was always on the side of the settlers, and played a leading role in the long war to take control of the Ohio Valley: a war conditioned, in large part, by the needs of American nationalism. Washington wanted to minimise the continuing British influence over the western frontier, and to use federal troops and legislation to bind white settlers to the new United States. But the war was also waged to secure the commercial potential of the vast interior for the new republic, and in this sense Washington aligned himself (and the federal government) against the native inhabitants.

The construction of the new Federal City was not his finest hour, either. The decision to locate a national capital on the Potomac River was part of a 1790 compromise to persuade Southern representatives to accept Hamilton’s controversial financial plans in Congress. Washington then transferred responsibility for building the capital from the legislature to the executive, and personally directed the project without Congressional oversight. He hired the French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and marked out the site (just a few miles from Mount Vernon) himself. But building a capital on a muggy tidewater turned out to be more difficult than he had imagined. L’Enfant’s design, inspired rather incongruously by Versailles, was wildly overambitious. Washington held a series of auctions for the prized plots which virtually no one attended. In an early episode of Franco-American misunderstanding, L’Enfant protested to Washington that the national capital should be funded by the federal government rather than by speculators, and was subsequently fired. If he had lived past 1799, perhaps the president would have enjoyed the irony that the first long-term inhabitants of the Federal City were his Republican opponents. After John Adams suffered a miserable few months in the unfinished executive mansion in 1800, it was Jefferson and Madison who had to tramp through the mud and drive snakes out of their offices. But the city that bore Washington’s name was a backwater throughout the 19th century, and it was only after Congress dusted off L’Enfant’s plans in 1902 that the American capital attained its current soulless majesty.

If Washington wasn’t a particularly accomplished president, or a genius on the battlefield, are we left with much beyond those two glorious exits? One quality that deserves attention is his indomitableness, the sticking power that enabled him to hold together the Continental Army and the United States during trying times. But this isn’t quite enough for Ellis, who seems reluctant to strip away too many layers of varnish in case there’s nothing underneath. Hence the book’s unsatisfying approach to the vexed issue of slavery. More than 300 slaves toiled at Mount Vernon; in his retirement, Washington would rise at dawn to ensure that they were fully occupied for the day. He provided in his will for the eventual emancipation of his slaves, but he pursued runaways without remorse and, when the federal government moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790, he devised an elaborate plan to shuttle his slaves back and forth to Mount Vernon every six months to ensure that they didn’t win their freedom under Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition laws.

One might argue that Washington was fairly liberal by the standard of his time: slavery was an integral part of the early republic, and very few white men had the vision or courage to imagine its abolition. Ellis tells a different story: Washington was a committed opponent of slavery, but also a passionate believer in the transformative potential of the United States. Ellis’s Washington chose to put union before abolition. In 1790, Pennsylvania Quakers forced a debate in Congress over the future of slavery; Washington pushed for the dismissal of their petitions, not because he was a defender of slavery but because he realised that the issue could divide the nation. Thus Ellis implies that his apparently blithe dismissal of abolition was a kind of moral triage. First the United States should develop a strong national government, then that government could impose universal liberty on intransigent states, slaveholding individuals and other miscreants out of step with the nation’s original intent.

This isn’t entirely persuasive. In its early decades, the republic did an impressive job of converting land into opportunity for white people, and in promoting liberty and democracy among white men in particular. But this opportunity was secured by the systematic subjugation or expulsion of non-whites. Washington and the other founders crafted a government that was, in effect, a machine for transferring liberty and opportunity from non-whites to whites; and they did this knowingly, though not without occasional pangs of conscience. To reach this conclusion is not to argue that Washington or the other founders were without their merits, but instead to restore them to their political and moral context.

The problem with His Excellency George Washington, as with many books on the founders, is its tendency to assume an essential moral unity in American history. In Ellis’s book, this is achieved by imagining Washington as a closet abolitionist, even a Lincoln-in-waiting, who championed federal power but believed that slavery could only be abolished when the time was right. Jefferson and Madison, meanwhile, become the advocates of a phony nationalism intended to prop up the interests of Virginia or, at best, the South. Ellis has approached this topic before, in Founding Brothers, and buried in that book’s endnotes is the explicit (and extraordinary) claim that ‘a reincarnated Washington would have gone with Lincoln and the Union in 1861.’ This has the virtue of bridging the chasm of the Civil War and bringing today’s Americans into full moral communion with their first president. But it encourages a belief in the integrity of American history that obscures the meaning and distinctiveness of the founding period.

In 1805, John Adams and Benjamin Rush – two of the founders who’d fallen on hard times, relatively speaking – began an occasional and droll correspondence about the national obsession with George Washington. There were sour grapes here, for sure: Adams liked to claim that he was the brains behind the Farewell Address, and both men were amazed that Franklin and Washington had parlayed their Revolutionary fame into extraordinary wealth while other founders and veterans had slipped into penury and obscurity. But their correspondence returned over and over to the abuses of history. Of the first president, Adams observed that ‘I know of no character to which so much hypocritical adulation has been offered.’ Rush, meanwhile, abandoned his plan to write a history of the Revolution: ‘From the immense difference between what I saw and heard of men and things during our Revolution, and the histories that have been given of them, I am disposed to believe with Sir Robert Walpole that all history (that which is contained in the Bible excepted) is a romance, and all romance the only true history.’

These jaded correspondents believed that history was being abused by individuals on the make. Rush declared in 1805 that ‘there are very few true Americans in the United States,’ and he decried the pseudo-patriots who saw in the Union (and in the federal government) the possibility of personal gain. We don’t need to accept this cynicism to take issue with romantic histories of the founding fathers. Perhaps it was necessary in the 1790s, and even in the 1800s, to monumentalise Washington in order to secure America’s uncertain future. To observe that he himself was complicit in this process is not to condemn him; those two extraordinarily graceful exits from power have protected the United States from a Napoleon (or a Tony Blair) and will ensure that the second George W. will leave the White House in January 2009. But the desire felt by Americans in the 21st century to imagine their history as an unbroken enterprise – to touch Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory and hear a founder’s voice – tends towards a sentimentalisation of the early republic that serves neither history nor the needs of the present.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 28 No. 1 · 5 January 2006

Nicholas Guyatt describes Washington DC as ‘a backdrop throughout the 19th century’ which, ‘only after Congress dusted off L’Enfant’s plans in 1902 … attained its current soulless majesty’ (LRB, 17 November 2005). L’Enfant had absconded to Paris more than a century earlier following his angry resignation as planner in chief. The real hero is Benjamin Banneker, the African-American mathematician who worked with L’Enfant and whose photographic memory reproduced those plans in detail.

Leonard Benardo
Brooklyn, New York

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences