Historian details Washington’s life

There has never been a great single volume book written on George Washington, but Joseph Ellis intends on writing one, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author said last Thursday.

The historian also said that Washington’s presidency would likely receive only a single chapter in the book, as it was more an “epilogue” to the founding father’s life than a defining moment.

Ellis, author of the recent best-seller “Founding Brothers,” spoke at the College as part of a Winter Study course on “Presidential Leadership” taught by Susan Dunn, professor of romance languages, and James MacGregor Burns, emeritus professor of political science. During his informal talk, Ellis read from a hand-written first draft of a chapter from his upcoming book on Washington.

Though he stressed that he had not completely made up his mind about some of the important issues surrounding Washington’s life, Ellis did share some of his initial thoughts on “His Excellency,” the term used to refer to Washington during his life and the tentative title of Ellis’ book. He focused mainly on Washington’s early days, especially during the Revolutionary War, which Ellis argued was the most important and formative period of Washington’s life.

According to Ellis, while the other founding fathers – notably Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – were intellectuals, Washington was a man of action. “Both Jefferson and Adams are men whose ideas came from reading and thought,” he said. “Washington’s not stupid. . . but he’s essentially a man of action and his own ideas develop out of experience and some pretty harrowing ones. If you wanted to think about the proper contemporary analogue for Washington as a young man, think of Indiana Jones.”

Also setting Washington apart was his firm belief that he was what Ellis termed “destiny’s child” in the draft he read aloud. While previous generations of the Washington males had all died by the age of 50, Washington lived well past that age. Washington also emerged from countless battles during the French-Indian War and Revolutionary War without a scratch while the officer corps was being decimated.

“When Washington talks about destiny, people listen,” Ellis said. “The same thing happens at Yorkville, as well. Artillery rounds are going off, his aides are falling down and yelling ‘get down, get down’ and Washington says, ‘no, it’s important that I’m up here.’”

Washington’s belief in his own destiny, coupled with his frontier background, made him less of an intellectual thinker than many of the other founding fathers, Ellis argued.

Due to his fearless leadership during the Revolutionary War, Washington’s reputation as a great hero was firmly established well before he decided to accept the presidency.

As a result, there was little incentive for Washington to serve as he had “everything to lose and nothing to gain” by becoming president, Ellis said.

Ultimately, Ellis argued, the outpouring of emotion from the public that Washington received during the time the Constitution was being drafted in Philadelphia and, especially, during Washington’s ride up to New York for the inauguration are what cemented his belief that becoming president was the right decision.

“It rekindled his interest in service. I don’t want to make any cheap comparison to Michael Jordan coming back, but he’s a human being who is influenced by the fact that he is so popular and the accolades that come his way,” Ellis said.

While on a book tour in 2000 promoting his book “Founding Brothers,” Ellis found a very different sentiment coming from the American public regarding the presidency. “The question they really asked more than any other was ‘how come in the year 1800 they got to choose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and in the year 2000 we have to choose between Gore and Bush?’” he said.

“The answer I came up with was: Henry Adams, the great-grandson of John Adams, writing in the 1870s, said if you look at the history of the presidency panoramically you’d have to believe Charles Darwin got it exactly backwards – there’s an absolute devolution.”

Ellis then said that many of the figures from the country’s founding we now consider great were controversial at the time and only became revered after their deaths.

Burns ended the discussion by suggesting that Washington’s success as a president should not be underestimated. “It is inconceivable to me that he could have thought of his revolutionary period where he was not a great general and dismiss the possibility of his greatness coming later,” he said. “After all, he did accept the presidency and he was, in my view, a very strong and successful president – a more successful president than he was revolutionary general.”

Ellis said the comment was extremely provocative and “a great teacher would ask a provocative question.”