Notes on His Excellency by Joseph Ellis

This is a short biography on George Washington. In addition to the fact that I really like Ellis as a writer and historian, Ellis offered something that appealed to me–namely, to provide a reason Washington garnered tremendous respect and admiration from all the other Founding Fathers, even though many were more well educated and intellectually superior. I’m not sure if Ellis provides a clear answer to this question, but here is my sense of the reasons Washington had universal respect from the Founding Fathers.

I would point to Washington’s charisma and aura first. Both stemmed partly from something superficial like his stature and physique. He was a 6′ 3″, and I might add, a good horse rider. He was known for his silence, and even a kind of aloofness, which I think can make people seem powerful, majestic, and even wise. He was also an experienced soldier with a good reputation. Interestingly, one could argue that his early military career didn’t warrant this reputation. However, the press portrayed him favorably, even a hero at times*. In at least one instance, bias against the British officers and bias for a son of Virginia probably explains some of this.

Second, I think the nation not only a leader for the revolution, but a kind of symbol that for the revolution. I get the sense Washington was a kind of avatar for the spirit of 1776. His military experience and reputation, plus his charisma made him the ideal person for this role.

Third, Washington and the Continental Army, underdogs from the start, triumphed over Great Britain. I don’t think Ellis mentions this very much, so this is speculation on my part, but Washington’s status must have risen significantly in the eyes of the Founding Fathers. While I view Washington’s military prowess in a rather negative way (and he had critics in the Confederate Congress), he endured incredible hardships (lack of funding, supplies and troops). Just keeping the army together and staying in the fight as long as he did warrants respect. Ultimately, I wonder if Washington wasn’t like a quarterback who lead his underdog team to a championship. Such a person would win great admiration from people who were superior to the QB in other ways.

I’m not sure if there are other points, but these are three that come to mind. I should note that I’m focusing on the time prior to the presidency, primarily because the Founders’ respect and admiration seemed firmly established prior to the presidency.

In conclusion, I’m not sure I respect and admire the pre-president Washington to the same degree as the Founders. Part of this likely stems from really high expectations and standards that I had going into the book. Ellis, to his credit, includes too many unpleasant truths making meeting the standard impossible. I’m still digesting the book so my views could change. I will say that I tend to admire Washington more for his actions after the War of Independence. Maybe I’ll write about that later.

(*As an aside, I wonder about the relationship between reputation and a narrative that is part of this reputation. If at some point a favorable narrative of Washington developed, I wonder the extent to which this formed the basis for the admiration from the Founding generation. Narratives are often more powerful than facts. Facts that can undermine or destroy a narrative can be dismissed if a narrative is strong enough. That this may be the case with Washington seems compelling to me because the book left with a rather low impression of Washington as soldier and general. On the plus side, he seemed bold and courageous, but on the negative side his military instincts and judgments were unimpressive, if not poor. In some instances, this seemed to stem from pride. For example, Ellis suggests that Washington saw the Continental Army as a projection of himself. Washington was aggressive person who wanted to prove himself. (He was not born of privilege, and his ambition allowed him to move up the career and social ladder. In a way, I wonder if you could say he had a huge chip on his shoulder.) This can be a good thing, but it seemed to cloud his judgment. The ultimate goal was to win the war, not prove himself, and losing sight of this caused him to make several huge mistakes that could have ended up in disaster if it weren’t for equally significant actions (mistakes) by the enemy. In short, luck seemed to play too big of a role in Washington’s success to justify his reputation, and this suggests a very sticky narrative bolstered and protected his reputation and status.)

One thought on “Notes on His Excellency by Joseph Ellis

  1. While reading Ellis’s descriptions of Washington, I thought of two other presidents–Lincoln and Reagan. I thought of Lincoln because Ellis gave me the impression that Washington’s fixation on his reputation, particularly from posterity’s vantage point, was crucial to his success. He wanted to be remembered well, and I think that lead him to behave in ways that benefited the country. Specifically, he did not want to be remembered as another revolutionary that turned into a dictator or that the country fell a part on his watch. European predictions for both likely made him even more aware of this. From what I recall, Lincoln also seemed driven by a desire to do something great and remembered for this. Both seemed to do things to be seen favorably in the eyes of history.

    With regard to Reagan, the similarities seemed stronger. Both of them seemed more like vehicles of a certain spirit and ideas that resonated powerfully with the citizenry. With Washington, it was the reasons for opposing British rule and perhaps the principles used as justification for the revolution. With Reagan, it was an image of America that Americans admired and longed for at the time–an America right after the World War II, one we view as strong, decent hard-working families, among other things. Reagan seemed to channel and give voice to that.

    Additionally, both seemed to rely a lot on the people they selected. I’m not sure about the quality of Reagan’s cabinet, but Washington’s cabinet seemed like a Dream Team, and a lot of credit has should go to them. Then again, if Washington could recognize talent and managed them well, a lot of credit should go to him as well. Whether Reagan was a great manager of talent, I’m not sure.

    Finally, both seemed old and feeble, maybe not entirely capable of governing at the end of their tenures. My understanding is that Reagan has signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but I’m not sure about that. Washington seemed to be losing focus and energy.

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