Man behind the legend

His Excellency George Washington
December 2, 2005

Joseph Ellis is the latest author to attempt to penetrate the enigma of George Washington. Where some earlier scholars risked entombing Washington in huge multi-volume studies, Ellis seeks to reach beyond the legend to discover the character and to explain the personality of Washington in the context of the unfolding history of his time. Ellis's study bears comparison with Marcus Cunliffe's George Washington: Man and Monument , a scintillating work by a British authority on American history published in 1958. Indeed, Ellis credits Cunliffe as "the predecessor who taught me most". This is not to suggest that Ellis's book is anything other than his own. Since 1983, a new and comprehensive edition of the Papers of George Washington has been appearing, and this is Ellis's principal source. This book is for both general readers and scholars.

A hallmark of Ellis's scholarship is his insistence that history should not be anticipated. Washington could not know where he was going, and Ellis is good at reaching the man before the legend and confronting us with the contingencies that shaped his life. While he adopts a broadly chronological strategy, within each chapter a distinctive story is told. Much is made of Washington's early expeditions into the interior, which underlined for him the rough hazards of life and left him with a conviction that America's future was bound up with the West. In a fine chapter on the Revolutionary War, Ellis presents the ragged continental army as almost the only "national" American institution, the survival of which was the key to victory. As its commander, Washington came to personify the nation as no other American could. The war also convinced him of the need for strong national institutions.

But Washington remained punctilious in his respect for political authority and sought to return to private life after the war, albeit thus further enhancing his reputation for republican virtue. Washington may have lacked Thomas Jefferson's intellect and John Adams's learning, but he had self-confidence and sound judgment. He had learnt to keep a rein on his passions and to address crises with calm circumspection, and he combined an understanding of earthy practicalities and the inevitability of self-interest with a thoughtful respect for political principle.

Michael Heale is emeritus professor of American history, Lancaster University, and senior associate fellow, Rothermere American Institute, Oxford.

His Excellency George Washington

Author - Joseph J. Ellis
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 325
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 571 21212 3

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