You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Man Who Would Not Be King

By Joseph J. Ellis
(Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95)

(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Everyone keeps wondering why over the past decade or so there have been so many books on the Founders, that remarkable generation of men who led the American Revolution and framed the Constitution. Joseph J. Ellis is surely one of the explanations: he has been a one-man historical machine. Beginning in 1993 with Passionate Sage, his book on John Adams in retirement, and the most sensitive and elegant of all his works, Ellis has produced two widely acclaimed books: one on Jefferson, American Sphinx, and another a collective portrait of the Founders, Founding Brothers. And now we have this new biography of George Washington, the latest in his character studies of the Founders.

All of these books, especially American Sphinx and Founding Brothers, have been best-sellers. Ellis has entered the ranks of that tiny group of popular historians, including David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, and Ron Chernow, who sell copies of their books in the tens and even hundreds of thousands. Unlike many of these popular historians, however, Ellis is a full-fledged scholar, a longtime professor of history at Mount Holyoke College.

It is unusual for academic historians to become popular historians. First of all, most academic historians do not write well enough to be easily accessible to a wide readership. Too much of their writing is turgid, jargon-ridden, and often filled with fashionable theories taken from other disciplines. So scholars of the early republic have borrowed the idea of "self-fashioning" from the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, and the notion of a nation as an "imagined community" from the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, and the conception of the "public sphere" from the philosopher Jrgen Habermas. In the eyes of the academy these days, being able to pack all such theories into a single work is the mark of a real pro.

But ultimately it is not the quality of their prose or their use of theory that prevents most academic historians from becoming popular. It is, rather, the questions that they ask about the past, and the subjects that they write about. Most academic historians write for one another and carry on esoteric arguments within their own fields about subjects that they themselves have selected. Not that these subjects don't grow out of current concerns of our larger culture. The subjects that engage most academic historians are very much the product of contemporary issues--generally the liberal issues of race, women, sexuality, diversity, and cultural and social problems of various sorts. Yet these issues apparently are not the ones most Americans want to read about. Based on sales figures alone, it seems clear that most Americans want to read about the dead white males who created the nation--that is, the very subjects most academics do not want to write about.

POPULAR READERS ARE certainly willing to accept criticism of the Founders-- Ellis's character studies are not all celebratory--but they do not want the United States to be, as the late John Higham put it, merely "a villain in other people's stories." And in many of the histories of early America, unfortunately, that is precisely what the nation has become. Ellis may be exaggerating when he says that "the currently hegemonic narrative within the groves of academe [makes] Washington complicitous in creating a nation that was imperialistic, racist, elitist, and patriarchal," but he is not exaggerating by much. He is probably correct in declaring that "the reigning orthodoxy in the academy regards Washington as either a taboo or an inappropriate subject, and any aspiring doctoral candidate who declares an interest in, say, Washington's career as commander in chief, or president, has inadvertently confessed intellectual bankruptcy." I certainly know of at least one distinguished professor with a superb book on Alexander Hamilton who was told that writing about such a dead white male was a waste of time.

Young academic historians interested in the early decades of the newly created United States want to move "beyond the Founders," as the title of a new book on the era puts it. Many of the new works on the Founding era avoid old- fashioned political subjects such as parties, elections, and the origins of the nation, and instead focus on the social and cultural problems of race, women, Indians, and transnational identities and movements of peoples. Yet it is important to emphasize that works on these social and cultural subjects, however much they are written out of anger with middle America and however lacking in popular appeal, have greatly enriched our scholarly understanding of the early republic. Our knowledge of the Founding era would be seriously impoverished without the many recent monographic studies of slavery, women, Indians, and other subjects hitherto kept out of the national narrative. All this suggests that the advancement of professional historical scholarship usually transcends the motives of its participants.

Although most people may want to read popular biographies of the principal Founders, even those academic historians who focus on politics in the early republic understandably wish to write about something other than these famous individuals. Instead of a few prominent political leaders, they are interested in cultural politics: in the ways in which people, especially ordinary people, expressed themselves politically outside of organized parties--in parades, festivals, and rituals and symbols of all sorts. These historians wish to understand how the new nation and its institutions emerged not only from the top down but also from the bottom up, or even from the middle out. And another biography of Washington, who was, as Ellis says, "the deadest, whitest male in American history," does not meet these historians' needs at all.

BUT ELLIS IS not writing for his fellow scholars. Although he is quite willing to use their monographs for his own purposes, he is not really interested in engaging with their internal debates or in participating in their efforts to expand the boundaries of scholarship. He never mentions Greenblatt, Anderson, or Habermas. He is a popular historian, writing for educated readers in the general populace, and another biography of Washington, especially one as wellwritten as this book is, will meet those readers' needs quite admirably.

Readers who are familiar with the vast array of writings about Washington will not find much that is new or original in Ellis's book. But they will find his usual engaging style of writing. He has a wonderful knack for summing a mass of complicated material in a few pithy sentences. With Ellis, it is not so much what is said as how it is said. His writing is forthright and directed at the reader in the "manly tone" that Hamilton sometimes used; it is always clear, confident, colloquial, even at times conversational. ("Questioning Washington's judgment, and implicitly his unique authority, was akin to purchasing a one-way ticket to the sidelines.") And it is tinctured with just the right amount of Ellis's peculiar humor. ("Standing calmly at attention while the man abreast of you is disemboweled by a cannon ball is an acquired skill and not a natural act.")

Like Ellis's other character studies of the Founders, this one is modest in length, all the better to capture the hordes at Borders. The book that Ellis hopes to displace is Marcus Cunliffe's little gem George Washington: Man and Monument, now nearly fifty years old and still in print. Cunliffe's book is short, only 150 pages, and it is very readable. Although the scholarly community at first ignored it--it has no footnotes and too much interpretation at the expense of narration--Cunliffe's study of Washington actually launched what has become a veritable genre of history writing, one that Ellis has exploited superbly: short and interpretative essay-like books on the character of the Founders.

Although Ellis gives Cunliffe's little book a special salute in his preface, he thinks a new short biography is needed. He believes, correctly, that we know much more now about the context of Washington's life than we knew in the 1950s, when Cunliffe wrote. We know much more about the ideology of the Revolution, the social and economic forces at work in plantation Virginia, the incompatible versions of the spirit of 1776 that exploded into partisan political warfare in the 1790s, the fate of the Indians, and--most important--the issue of slavery.

ELLIS HAS WRITTEN his short biography neither to celebrate nor to denigrate Washington. He wanted to recover the man, not the monument, and in this he has succeeded beautifully. Washington emerges as a thoroughly human character, without losing his stature as a great man. Not everyone agrees, though: the distinguished historian David Hackett Fischer has criticized Ellis's new book for diminishing Washington's heroic greatness while trying to explain that greatness. According to Fischer, Ellis has attempted a psychological study of Washington that stresses "a dark flaw or deep conflict" in the man which undermines his reputation for honesty, dignity, and virtue. Instead of being moved by ideals and devoted to the principles of the Revolution, Washington becomes, according to Fischer, a man (in Ellis's words) of "tumultuous passions, " "aggressive instincts," "bottomless ambition," "personal avarice," and "a truly monumental ego with a massive personal agenda." According to Ellis, Washington "lost more battles than he won; indeed, he lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history." "Altogether," writes Fischer, "Ellis gives us the most negative interpretation of Washington's generalship since the debunkers of the 1930s."

This seems harsh and unfair. It is true that Ellis's characterization of Washington emphasizes all those psychological forces of ambition and avarice driving the man throughout his life. But Ellis also emphasizes Washington's control over his passions ("the most notorious model of self-control in all of American history"), his steadfastness, his acceptance of Whig and patriotic ideals, his wisdom, and his overall achievement in the creation of the American nation. Ellis's portrait of Washington thus humanizes the man without knocking him off the pedestal where his contemporaries placed him. This Washington is all the greater because he is a real human being with both passions and principles.

It is a mistake to set passions and principles in opposition to each other. They are not mutually exclusive. Washington may have been the most ambitious and acquisitive of the Founders, but he was at the same time the most disinterested and virtuous of this group of extraordinary men. Whatever may have been the underlying forces or emotions driving Washington's behavior, he had to explain, to justify, to legitimate, and to make sense of that behavior to himself, and to his fellow Americans, by invoking principles that he and they shared and could admire. And by doing so in terms of the highest republican ideals of the age, he limited, controlled, circumscribed, and even created that behavior. His surrendering of his sword to the Congress in 1783 and his retirement to Mount Vernon with a promise to engage in no further political activities electrified the world. ("The greatest exit in American history," Ellis calls it.) From Caesar to Marlborough, every victorious general in history had expected political rewards commensurate with his military achievements. But not Washington. His retirement made him immediately famous as a modern-day Cincinnatus. Although Washington knew very well the effect that his action would have, his behavior was no less commendable, and no less virtuous, for all that.

Washington as a young man was certainly ambitious and acquisitive. He sought to make a name for himself as a military man in the Ohio Country, and through his aggressive actions he almost singlehandedly precipitated what the American colonists called the French and Indian War and the Europeans the Seven Years' War. Although he nearly got himself killed in several military disasters, he nevertheless came out of the war unscathed and with his reputation as a military man enhanced. He took advantage of the British victory over the French and Indians by buying up land in the West, eventually acquiring nearly sixty thousand acres in the transAppalachian area. When the British refused to grant him the military commission that he pleaded for, he turned his ambitions and energies to building up his estates in order to become one of the dominant planters of Virginia. To that end he smothered whatever feelings he had for Sally Fairfax and married the rich widow Martha Dandridge Custis. "Her huge dowry," says Ellis, "immediately catapulted Washington into the top tier of Virginia's planter class and established the economic foundations for his second career as the master of Mount Vernon."

In the developing crisis between Britain and its colonies, writes Ellis, "constitutional niceties did not concern him." Washington was far more concerned with the restraints the British government was placing on the colonists' expansion to the West. Eventually, like most of the Revolutionary leaders, he came to detect a British conspiracy against American liberty. As "Virginia's most famous war hero," he was naturally selected by his fellow Virginians to go to the Second Continental Congress to fight. "When he departed Mount Vernon for Philadelphia on May 4, 1775," writes Ellis, "he took along his military uniform, both as a sign and a statement of his aggressive intentions." Although, as Ellis points out, Washington "had considerable trouble acknowledging his own ambitions," he was virtually destined to become commander- in-chief of the Continental Army.

The War for Independence, which Ellis points out was "the longest declared war in American history," became "the central event in Washington's life, the crucible for his development as a mature man, a prominent statesman, and a national hero." Ellis does not take us through each battle in detail; instead, he uses the battles and the war to illuminate Washington's character. Although Washington did lose most of his battles, he understood power and politics. He always deferred to the Congress and yet held the allegiance of his men through their defeats and their suffering. He came to appreciate that keeping his army intact was the secret to saving the country, thus reinforcing what Ellis calls "a central lesson of his life--survive and you shall succeed."

Washington's experience with the Continental Army made him a nationalist; it made him think about the United States as a whole. Only his anxiety over the failure of the union and all that he and his army had fought for accounts for his "genuinely grudging and truly tortured" break with his promise in 1783 not to engage in public life again. His colleagues persuaded him to attend the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, of which he was immediately elected president, and then to stand for the presidency of the new national government created by the convention. In both cases, says Ellis, he did what he did best, "leading by listening" and projecting "otherworldly detachment--one of his best and favorite roles."

Ellis has no doubt about Washington's greatness as president; but that "achievement must be recovered before it can be appreciated, which means that we must recognize that there was no such thing as a viable American nation when he took office as president." No president has ever faced the circumstances Washington faced. Lincoln had to save the Union, but Washington had to create it. As he had in the War for Independence, says Ellis, he transformed "the improbable into the inevitable."

Realizing the fragility of the new nation, Washington backed a number of schemes for creating a stronger sense of nationhood. In the absence of long- existing feelings of nationalism in the 1790s, popular celebrations of Washington became a substitute for patriotism; indeed, commemorations of his birthday rivaled those of the Fourth of July. It is not too much to say that for many Americans he stood for the Union. As president he was always acutely sensitive to the varying interests of the country and fervent in his efforts to prevent the nation from fragmenting and falling apart. Washington undertook his two long royal-like tours of the country in 1789 and 1791, so as to bring the government to the farthest reaches of the land and to reinforce the loyalty of people who had never seen him. He promoted roads and canals and the post office- -anything and everything that would bind the different states and sections together.

WASHINGTON ALSO UNDERSTOOD the power of symbols, and he was willing to sit for long hours to have his portrait painted for the sake of the country's public spirit. The thirty-nine-year-old painter Gilbert Stuart grasped this point only too well. Stuart, though born in colonial America, spent most of his early adult years in Britain developing his peculiar skills as a portrait painter, or as he put it, "making faces." Shortly after returning to the United States in the mid-1790s, the ambitious Stuart hustled to Philadelphia with the express purpose of painting President Washington. He painted his first portrait of Washington some time in 1795 (it is known as the Vaughn portrait), and its success led to many more and numerous replicas of these. Copies of Stuart's unfinished Athenaeum portrait, done in 1796, dominated nineteenth-century America; it is the reversed image of the portrait that graces our dollar bills. Fourteen of Stuart's portraits of Washington are currently displayed in a major retrospective of nearly one hundred of the artist's portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although Stuart had a reputation for putting his subjects at ease in order to bring out their personalities, he had immense difficulty with Washington. During one troublesome sitting Stuart finally pleaded in exasperation, "Now sir you must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart, the painter." Washington's reply chilled the air: "Mr. Stuart need never feel the need of forgetting who he is or who General Washington is." No wonder the portraits look stiff. Washington always used his natural reticence to reinforce his image as a stern and forbidding figure, the better to be a king-like patriarchal leader.

ALTHOUGH SOME AMERICANS  in 1789 did desire to turn the presidency into a kind of elected monarchy, Washington resisted, and was relieved when senatorial efforts to give him an elaborate royal-sounding title failed. Yet he, like other high-toned Federalists, believed in a clearly established social hierarchy, and he was determined to make the presidency a respectable office. (He had initially favored "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties" as a presidential title.) Consequently- -and this is something that Ellis tends not to emphasize enough--he often acted as if he were an elected king. In his public pronouncements he referred to himself in the third person, and like a British monarch speaking to Parliament from the throne, he chose to deliver his inaugural address personally to the Congress. He accepted the presence of royal-like iconography everywhere, and in his public appearances he rode in an elaborately ornamented coach drawn by six horses, attended by four servants in livery, followed by his official family in other coaches. He established excruciatingly formal levees in emulation of a royal court, and like the English kings he went on royal progresses through the country where he was welcomed by triumphal arches and ceremonies befitting a monarch. In fact, Washington was the only part of the new government that really caught the imagination of the American people, who after all had been reared in monarchy.

Since Ellis does not take Washington's monarch-like behavior as seriously as he might have, he cannot fully appreciate the mounting Republican opposition to the administration led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He pictures Jefferson as he did in his earlier work, a disingenuous pie-in-the-sky ideologue who was in love with France and who failed to comprehend the real interests of the United States, certainly not in the way the hard-headed and unsentimental Washington did. The Republican leaders were caught up in a "conspiratorial mentality" and full of "Jefferson-talk," which was "the kind of overheated and melodramatic depiction of the purported evil lurking in Washington's administration that passed for self-evident truths within Republican headquarters in Virginia."

Ellis's acute historical sense fails him here. He tends to judge the politics of the 1790s as if they were similar to the politics of our own time. So he accuses Jefferson and Madison of having "played politics with foreign policy during the debate over the Jay Treaty," as if these Republican opposition leaders, like politicians today, were simply looking for issues with which to embarrass the administration. But he describes the defenders of the administration no differently. In 1798, he says, "the Federalists were exploiting the anti-French hysteria in the same partisan fashion that the Republicans had exploited the pro-French hysteria during the debate over the Jay Treaty."

The politics of the 1790s were not exactly politics as usual, and we will never understand the passions of that tumultuous decade if we think otherwise. This is why Ellis has some problems explaining Washington's extraordinary behavior during the final years of the decade. In 1798, with much less of his earlier reluctance to abandon his retirement at Mount Vernon and do his duty, the old general buckled on his sword once again and made his way to Philadelphia to organize an army, numbering on paper in the tens of thousands, designed to resist what was thought to be an imminent French invasion. "Washington's blinkered response" to events in 1798 "becomes difficult to explain," says Ellis. Washington "should have known better"; he "should have sensed that something was awry at this moment." But he didn't know better, any more than others did, caught up as they were in the bewildering circumstances bred by this age of revolutions.

One issue that Ellis handles with consummate skill is Washington's agony over slavery. Washington came to his eventual rejection of slavery not only out of moral considerations but also out of economic ones. He concluded that slavery was economically inefficient and that people who were compelled to work would never work hard. With this issue, as with others, Ellis is at pains to emphasize Washington's aversion to idealistic and sentimental illusions. As with foreign policy, so with slavery: he preferred "rock-ribbed realism" to "any idealistic agenda that floated above the realities of power on the ground. " But in his will he did free the slaves whom he owned outright. (Since he could not free his wife's dower slaves and he did not want to break up the intermingled families, his slaves' freedom was to take effect only upon the death of his wife.) He did this in the teeth of opposition from his relatives, his neighbors, and perhaps even Martha. It was a courageous act, and one of his greatest legacies. Yet in this act, too, Ellis detects mixed motives. "Doing the right thing for his slaves," he observes, "became imperative because it also meant doing the right thing for his historic reputation." Would that more of the Founders had this concern for posterity's judgment on the issue of slavery.