George Washington probably wouldn't like historian James Ellis' "His Excellency: George Washington" very much.
It's not that Ellis denies that Washington was the essential figure of the American founding, without whom the Revolution would have been lost (if it could have been fought at all), the fledgling nation would have fallen into divisive disarray and the nature of the Presidency and the checks and balances of our institutions would not have been established.
As Ellis wraps it up in the book's best single line, "Washington's genius was his judgment."
Ellis also gives Washington proper credit for establishing not only nearly every aspect of the presidency, how it functions and its place in American life but also in how the military would work. It was revolutionary to have officers promoted on the basis of merit rather than family station in the 18th century.
Washington, however, would have intensely disliked the emphasis of Ellis' work. In his will, Washington instructed his wife, Martha, to destroy his letters to her precisely to keep writers from focusing on what made him tick, rather on than on his actions alone. (The destruction of this historical "treasure trove" is something that Ellis laments more than once.)
Ellis explains early on that finding the inner man is his goal and implies that this is something completely new. That's not exactly the case. Ellis, indeed, may have his own take, but Richard Brookhiser's superb, "Founding Father," took a concise and witty look at Washington's character. And, loath to fill in the blanks from the scant public record of Washington's inner life, William Martin took a novelist's approach to the subject in another great book, "Citizen Washington."
Ellis is most effective in this approach when examining Washington's early life, particularly his experiences on the frontier and fighting for the British army. The focus on the lessons learned is told in a compelling story of a young man on the way up.
It also sets the pattern for Washington's life - his iron control over his wild ambitions, passions and temper and, most importantly, his ability to learn from his mistakes.
What every military man knows is that war is a series of screw-ups. Ellis mouths the conventional wisdom that Washington was "no military genius." But very often what makes military genius is the ability to learn and adapt - and to never make the same mistake twice.
There is a certain lecturing quality to Ellis' style that reminds the reader that he is a college professor; he lacks the artistry of David McCullough's language, the narrative force of Thomas Fleming or the wit of Brookhiser.
Ellis seems so determined to avoid hagiography that he often robs the story of its inherently incredible drama, such as Washington's impassioned speech to quell a rebellion of officers who were shafted by the Continental Congress and his crossing of the Delaware River to set up his victory at the Battle of Trenton. By assuming that we already know all the good stuff, Ellis' determination to provide mostly context and moderation leaves the story a little flat.
This determination to say "on the other hand" in the name of balance is illustrated in the story of Washington's reluctance to take the helm of the Constitutional Convention after being hailed as America's Cincinnatus for rejecting personal power when he resigned from the Continental Army.
Ellis focuses almost solely on Washington's worries about his personal reputation and legacy in this matter. The fact is Washington knew he embodied the Revolution and his every action set precedent, so he worried mostly about breaking the example he had set of the military man spurning civilian power.
When he later discusses Washington's public demurral at accepting the presidency, however, Ellis gets it exactly right, explaining that whether Washington's statements represented modesty or a real desire to retire doesn't matter because the idea that anyone else possibly could have become president in his place was "a delusion."
For what purports to be a portrait of the inner Washington, however, "His Excellency" has a couple of big holes. Washington famously prayed for his men at Valley Forge and constantly evoked Providence or God in his speeches, but Ellis incredibly completely ignores the topic of his faith.
Another oft-argued aspect of Washington's inner life - his relationship with Martha - also gets short shrift, though this book would seem to be an apt place for it. The last quarter of the book gets far too involved with political wranglings that, while important to history, are not compellingly told.
For history buffs, Ellis' original takes on some aspects of Washington's life make "His Excellency" worthwhile. However, Brookhiser's "Founding Father" is a much better - and shorter - treatment about the character of the Essential American.