The unrelenting boom in historical biography known as “Founders chic” has smiled not only on such popular nonfiction writers as David McCulloch and Ron Chernow, but also on academic historians like Gordon Wood, Edmund Morgan, and Joanne Freeman. No scholar has fared better than Joseph J. Ellis. His success began in 1997 with American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. The book’s title was perverse: No one who wrote the thousands of letters that flowed from Jefferson’s pen should properly be called a sphinx. But in the Age of Clinton, the subject announced in its subtitle struck a resonant chord, and the book received the National Book Award for biography.
Three years later, Ellis published the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers, which enjoyed an extended run on the best-seller lists even as Ellis was ensnared in a dispiriting scandal over the false stories of wartime service in Vietnam that he had told his students at Mount Holyoke. Here Ellis used a set of biographical essays to bring alive the political disputes of the 1790s. Ellis proved that real historians can combine analytical verve with literary elegance, without forcing civilian readers to slog their dutiful way through the whole-life approach of nonfiction writers like McCulloch and Chernow.
Now Ellis casts his biographer’s appraising eye on the one Founder who towered literally and figuratively above all his countrymen. Ellis has previously portrayed George Washington largely as the object of the partisan manipulations of those serving around and beneath him: Hamilton, his wartime aide-de-camp and first treasury secretary; Adams, his vice president and successor; and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the two brilliant Virginians on whom he relied in his first administration and came to distrust so profoundly in his second. The chapter on Washington in Founding Brothers was concerned not with his conduct as president but with the great legacy of his leave-taking: the Farewell Address that Hamilton principally drafted.
Legacies are what all of Ellis’ books are finally about. For Ellis, legacies come in two forms. One is concerned with preserving the memory of the Revolution and articulating a vision of the American future. This contest pivots around Adams and Jefferson, political friends and diplomatic colleagues from 1776 to 1789, rivals for the presidency in 1796 and 1800, then estranged old warriors until they were finally and happily reconciled in 1812. For the next 14 years, until their concurrent deaths on July 4, 1826, their correspondence became a contest to decide what the Revolution had meant. In this debate, the hard-won, hard-boiled New England realism of Adams lost out to the sunny, self-deceiving optimism of the Virginia limousine liberal. Like other scholars who ultimately find Jefferson’s evasions hard to stomach, Ellis casts his vote for Adams.
The other form of legacy that engages Ellis involves the impact of individuals on events and the effect of personality on history. This is history in a traditional key: a story where decisions have to be made; individual actions have consequences, especially in war and politics; and strategically situated actors matter. Few readers will find this statement remarkable or surprising—after all, we live in an era when actions undertaken by such individuals, whether presidents or terrorists, have profound consequences. But among academic historians it represents, if not heresy, a distinctly contrarian point of view. It smacks too much of great-man, top-down accounts that privilege the powerful over everyone else, while ignoring the extent to which even the powerful are products of conditions and forces they only embody but do not control.
A different kind of control—self-control—is the defining theme of Ellis’ new book. Other biographers have emphasized how hard Washington labored to acquire the genteel respectability required to enter the Virginia planter elite, or to make the leap from former regimental officer to commander of the presumptuously named Continental Army that the Continental Congress created in 1775. They have noted his famously explosive temper, a furnace that regularly needed banking instead of stoking, and even poked fun at his earnest attempts to maintain the formal dignity and gravitas of office.
For Ellis, however, these particular exercises in self-control were secondary to a far more monumental struggle that Washington waged throughout his life. Washington “possessed a deep-seated capacity to feel powerful emotions,” Ellis observes; he was a man of “gargantuan” ambition, the possessor of “a truly monumental ego with a massive personal agenda.” It was not just the fear of acting beneath his station, or jeopardizing his hard-earned reputation, that led Washington to become “the most notorious model of self-control in all of American history.” It was rather his conviction that he was destined to do great things—that he was indeed “destiny’s child”—that made Washington the nation’s truest founder. If I read Ellis correctly, Washington projected his personal ambition directly onto the American nation itself, and his struggle for self-control was meant to assure that his own potentially monarchical qualities did not imprint themselves too firmly on the still-to-be-formed republic. Ellis thus ends the book on a half-paradoxical note. Washington’s decisions to resign his command of the army in 1783 and of the nation in 1796 did not mean “that he had conquered his ambitions, but rather that he fully realized that his ambitions were inherently insatiable and unconquerable.”
These ambitions first began to form during Washington’s famous missions to the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier in 1753 and 1754. The second of these trips brought the military clashes that escalated into the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63, a truly global conflict that made Britain the supreme power in the Atlantic world. Washington would have preferred to pursue his military ambitions within the empire. When that route was foreclosed to him, he channeled his energy instead into securing his place in the upper reaches of the Virginia gentry, conquering the young and wealthy widow Martha Custis to this strategic end. Then the Revolution intervened and created the greater stage that he craved. The astonishing physical courage and will to survive that he demonstrated whenever bullets flew, Ellis suggests, were marks of the inner confidence and sense of destiny that he had long since acquired.
Not all of His Excellency hinges on this interpretation of Washington’s struggle for self-control. As in his other books, Ellis has a cavalry officer’s flair for dashing across the historical terrain in search of prize topics. He has a knack, as well, for rendering quick summary judgments on many of the interpretive issues that vex historians—often too casually for my taste, but in a way that informs readers without distracting them from the story. But his literary heart and intellectual strength do not lie in resolving academic controversies. In the end, it’s all about character.
Nothing in this biography will alter our understanding of the politics of command during the Revolution or of political leadership during the first decade under the Constitution—unless, that is, we take seriously one other idea that subtly informs Ellis’ portrait. At his most expansive moments, Ellis implies that the American nation itself became a projection of Washington’s ambition. It was Washington the trans-Appalachian adventurer who saw most clearly the promise of the western interior. It was Washington the military commander who best grasped the nationalist lessons that the Revolution taught, if the new republic was ever to acquire the resources and will to discipline the states so they could collectively control that interior. It was Washington the president, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous political attacks, who realized that his own renunciation of power was needed to preserve republican values that others preached but that he had to control himself to practice.
Is Ellis right about all this? There is no way that insights of this kind into character and personality can ever be proven or disproven. But at a moment when the nature of political leadership in our constitutional republic is itself so controverted, His Excellency offers room for meditation.