Monday, February 21, 2011

The president who set the precedent

"Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior." (pg xiv)

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy books by Joseph Ellis, and in honor of President's Day I thought I'd review one of my favorite books by him: His Excellency: George Washington. It's a "modest-sized book about a massive historical subject" that examines why Washington was so highly regarded, both by his contemporaries and by history.

His Excellency: George WashingtonEllis points out that many others (such as Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro) were pivotal in orchestrating successful revolutions but only Washington declined to assume power in a military dictatorship (pg 139). And perhaps Washington's greatest trait was understanding that stepping aside would enhance the way he was viewed by posterity far greater than simply assuming power. He was always ambitious, looking for ways to integrate himself into Virginia society as a younger man, but he also knew when to exercise restraint and keep above the fray.

As the key figure of the American Revolution he kept up the struggle even when all odds were against him - flagging support among the people, poor condition of the Continental Army, lack of provisions from Congress, the supremacy of British strategy and control of the seas, French reluctance to provide assistance. And yet such experience taught him the importance of a strong federal government and guided his role as President of the new nation. There were no prior examples to draw from or precedent to follow, and although his own lack of a formal education was a constant embarrassment to him, he intuitively knew how to utilize the strengths of others and manage the competing ambitions of those around him in setting the nation on a path to stability.

Ellis hasn't exactly written a biography in the classic sense, although he does chronicle Washington's life, but it's enhanced by a deep character study of this important man. And few are as adept at bringing history's characters to life in such an insightful way and putting the reader into their shoes. It was in strong contrast to John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington. Where Ferling looks at a events with a critical eye enhanced with 200 years of historical hindsight, Ellis sees beyond the failings to the motivations and greater social customs of the day and makes the history personal in a way no one else does. Although the book was a little slow starting it was so packed with valuable insight that it merits a close reading. It's a great place to start if you'd like to learn more about one of our greatest presidents.

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