- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

He was judged by a contemporary, Henry Lee, “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Colleagues termed him “His Excellency,” and historians have tagged him as America’s only “indispensable man.”

But for us today, George Washington seems to be a noble, but boring father. In fact , he was man of explosive temperaments who struggled all his life with self-control. He fell passionately in love with his neighbor’s wife, was heavily criticized for war crimes by the French court during the French and Indian War, and was accused by the Republican party of having betrayed the nation’s ideals. He presided over a seemingly hopeless revolution, fighting the greatest empire of modern times. Indeed Washington found a ragtime army, and created a new nation.

We have done though what Washington probably wanted; we have elevated the flesh and blood man above his passions and created an icon of reserve and probity. But Washington still attracts his fair share of new biographers. Indeed Joseph J. Ellis, a noted author on the Founding Fathers, rests his judgments on the monumental multi-volume biographies of Douglas Southall Freeman and James Flexner.

Washington remains the classical definition of civic virtue, who, unlike so many other revolutionary generals before and after his time, returned power to civilian authorizes at the end of the war. He was like the noble Cincinnatus who saved the Roman Republic and then went back to plowing his fields. When Washington confronted a mutiny against the ineffectual Federal government, he appeared before the officer corps and read a statement opposing any such illegal gathering. And in a most calculating way, he reached for his spectacles and remarked that he had grown gray and blind in the service of his country. Angry officers started to cry openly, and the mutiny was suddenly over as he rode away into history.

Washington supported a strong national government because he had to live under a weak one during the long war. He joined the Constitution Convention in 1787 because he was told that his honor required it, and he accepted election as president because posterity would have poorly remembered him if he had refused. Always, it was reputation and history to which he appealed. Washington’s trip from Mount Vernon to his inauguration in New York City was a series of photo ops documenting the love of a free people for its aging hero.

In “His Excellency: George Washington,” Mr. Ellis gives us little new in his Washington biography, for there is probably little new to find. He sees Washington as a man characterized more by terms of experience and personal bravery, than by deep philosophical thought and reflection. Actually he kept his distance between himself and nearly all his contemporaries, except probably Lafayette.

Unfortunately his wife burnt their letters before her death, thus depriving the future of the personal moments of their joint past. Ellis does try to deal with Washington’s ambiguities toward black slavery. As military commander, he permitted blacks to serve in the army, a circumstance not repeated until the integrated forces of the Korean War.

He seriously thought about the issues of emancipation, and unlike Jefferson he ordered his slaves freed, although only after Martha’s death. Still after the war, he directed that runaway slaves be returned to their masters, and much later he resented the push of Quakers for him to join Benjamin Franklin, and exhort his fellow countrymen to terminate once and for all black bondage in what was supposed to be an empire of liberty.

Mr. Ellis is more interested in and more interesting on the Revolutionary War than on the eight years of the Washington presidency. We see the gambling man waging a series of confusing battles that fortuitously led to the last battle at Yorktown which was more instigated by America’s French allies, than by the colonials. The British tellingly even tried at first to surrender to the French. Still Washington did not believe at the time that that was the end of seven years of hardships and skirmishes. As president, he tried in his first term to stay above the fray during the intense conflicts between Hamilton and Jefferson. They were after all both his sons during the war.

But Jefferson and Madison, who should have know better, orchestrated a series of vicious attacks that eventually spilled over onto the president. For Washington’s offense was that he persisted in keeping America neutral during the European wars instead of honoring U.S. treaty obligations to its one-time ally France. In the end, Washington was right, and finally when the political dust settled, he prevailed again and again. The Washington Administration is a good example of the difference between the views of the “chattering classes” version of that time and the true political opinion of the masses. He simply stood head and shoulders above all of his critics. For when all was said and done, the American people knew that their Cincinnatus could never be a Caesar.

Mr. Ellis shows how most of the Founding Fathers were known more for their words, their proclamations, and their committee work. But Washington was revered for his bravery, for the military courage he showed repeatedly. Of all the Founding Fathers, he was one of the few to have stood with the ranks of the fighting men, and so appropriately he is remembered in a way that only the valiant have a right to be, and then added to that he served the nation he created in the executive office that he himself established. That was why he was first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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