Fall for the Book: His Excellency: George Washington

Americans tend to overlook one of the most important leaders in American history: George Washington. As biographer Joseph J. Ellis states boldly during his Fall for the Book discussion, Washington has become “too white and too male” for modern American history.

It has not always been this way. There once was a time when people knew more than the myth of wooden teeth and Weems’ cherry tree legend. But not any more. (By the way, Ellis thinks a movie will go a long way to bringing the Father of Our Country back into the hearts and minds of Americans. Steven Spielberg, take note!)

“One of my goals as a biographer is to bring them back alive,” Ellis said. In His Excellency: George Washington, he does just that. In the book chosen as the the 2007 All Fairfax Reads book, readers learn about the man as a surveyor, a new military leader, an experienced general, the first free president of any former European colony and, finally, as an elder statesman. His discussion brought his book — and Washington — to life as only a true enthusiast could.

Ellis stated at the outset of his discussion, “I am a biographer of imperfection.” He has written biographies of some of the American Revolution’s biggest names — Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, to name but a few — and he said “their greatness, their flawed greatness,” was what made them worth studying.

However, as Emily Dickinson advised, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” Ellis confirmed, “You don’t want to know about the read person. You want a myth. You need a myth.”

Washington helped build that myth as president, Ellis said, as the leader rode into towns in the newly formed states on his trusty steed and with his greyhound Cornwalis. “Washington was the only symbol of national unity,” Ellis noted, adding he looked much like John Wayne in the 1939 movie “Stagecoach:” tall, regal, handsome and graceful (and quite the accomplished dancer, if truth be told).

In His Excellency and in his discussion, Ellis offered the story of a life of mythological proportion. The general, which is how he was referred to for the rest of his life, was myth both during his life and after. Many of his peers considered him the greatest mind of his age.

Not that Washington revealed much. “What are the great words on the Washington Monument?” Ellis asked. Aside from “the graffiti in the stairwell,” the author noted, “there are none.” Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt all have their great words on their memorials in the District of Columbia. Washington, instead, had his wife Martha burn all of his letters at his death. In death, as in life, he was not forthcoming with what was on his mind. Instead, as Ellis noted, “You have to tease it out of him.”

Teasing it out of him is what Ellis did best. Not that Ellis necessarily liked Washington as a person — in a Fairfax County Public Library podcast, Ellis noted the general was not one of his favorite individuals. He was aloof and distant, the author said — but an admirable person. The general’s greatness, his brilliance and his love of country could not be denied — and made him a man to be respected and revered.

When eulogized, Henry Lee said Washington was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

  • First in war: during the eight years of the Revolutionary War, Washington stayed in the camps with his troops through thick and thin.
  • First in peace: he handed over his military power after the war was won and refused offers of a monarchy, prompting King George III to remark, “If he did, he is the best man in the world.”
  • First in the hearts of his countrymen: he traveled the nation to unify it, bringing together 13 disparate colonies, and worked with other national leaders to make the new republic work.

Reading His Excellency, one grows to admire Washington, as Ellis did — and by listening to the charming and exceptionally knowledgeable author speak about this man he admired, the charm of the book and the general grew even more.

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