[ bookreviews ]
Here we have the best one-volume life of Washington, a book that should be kept in every law office and, indeed, in every home, for so few of us know the facts narrated in Joseph J Ellis's accomplished prose, so deftly written that the reader reads them with a bemused anxiety over whether Washington, against all odds, would succeed. Indeed, it would be the insensible reader who would not, at the end of the book, put it down without an unaccountable but real sense of sadness over Washington's death, the death of a person so strange to our present state of things.
In May 1754, the 22-year-old George Washington, leading a party of 40, together with warriors led by Seneca chief Half-King, attacked French soldiers in the Ohio Country. As their wounded commander, Jumonville tried in French to explain that he was on a peace mission, Half-King, fluent in French but favoring brevity, with one blow hatcheted the Frenchman's skull in two, pulled out his brain and washed his hands in it, shocking Washington. There followed in July a bloody battle at Fort Necessity where the French and Indians, led by the brother of Jumonville, thoughtfully administered a world class beating to Washington. In his formal surrender, Washington admitted responsibility for the assassination of Jumonville, thus triggering the French and Indian War.
In 1755, Washington, as aide to General Braddock, saw 900 British and Americans savagely killed by the French and Indians. Braddock, hastily buried by Washington, had warred against the Indians as if he were in the suburbs of Paris. Upon returning from the battle, Washington became "the hero of Monongahela" for rallying the survivors in retreat. Several years followed in which Washington created an elite colonial unit having the discipline of British regulars and the proficiency of Indian warriors. His discipline was simple: he hanged deserters and gave up to a thousand strokes to the drunk and the lewd.
Little is known about Washington's youth. His father died when Washington was 11. His mother, from whom in later life he was estranged, never praised him. Unfortunately, she lived into his second term as President, publicly deriding and harassing him. James Thomas Flexner, Washington's distinguished historian, thought her a shrew. Washington, with only the equivalent of a grammar school education, always felt inferior to those who had managed college degrees. As a young man, he was six feet three inches, 175 pounds, athletically built, and had gray-blue eyes. He was emotionally restrained and mentally enigmatic. Those who knew him noted the imperial effect of his height and silence. He was markedly fearless, had great integrity, and was profoundly ambitious. Obsessive about his property, he thought slavery wrong, but not wrong enough to move him to free his slaves during his lifetime. He was not an intellectual, and he was not religious, fixing his eye more to the earth than to the heavens.
At 26, he fell in love with Sally Fairfax but married instead Martha Custis, Virginia's wealthiest widow, who at 27 had 18,000 acres that Sally didn't have, a decision that should warm the heart of any managing partner. The acreage, says Ellis, positioned Washington at the top of Viginia's planter class. For his soldiering, he received royal land grants that at his death would constitute the core of his great wealth.
Angered in 1774 by Britain's punitive reaction to the Boston Tea Party, Washington, at 43, found himself in 1775 commander in chief of the Continental Army, sitting in a custom-made chariot, escorted into Philadelphia by 500 horsemen, and addressed as "His Excellency." If he failed, he would hang and his extensive property would be confiscated. He could not have foreseen the embattled dead at Long Island, Fort Washington, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown and Saratoga; his depleted army, one-third shoeless, at Valley Forge, the snow red with the bloody feet of his men; the Continental Congress, useless as teats on a bull, without power to supply men or money; the hanging of unpaid soldiers in mutiny; soldiers eating their horses; the pillaging of farmers by starving soldiers; a hell sustained by his steel will.
Yet, as Ellis notes, it was at Valley Forge, and not Saratoga, that the war turned. The bread we eat in freedom was earned there by poor immigrants, 15 to 25 years-old, recently arrived from Ireland and England, indentured servants, former slaves, the landless, the castoffs, who, in their long hair, laughed as they decorated their uniforms with feathers and furs. They were so poor they didn't have between them the price of the shovel that would bury them.
The unknown god of perfect conjunctions suddenly appeared in October 1781, when Cornwallis was marooned in Yorktown, Virginia. With the essential help of the French fleet and French army engineers, Washington, after six years of hell, delivered a blow so decisive, Ellis points out, that Washington didn't realize at the time that the war was over. In 1783, the peace treaty having been signed, he dismissed offers of a kingship, surrendered his commission, and rode off in what Ellis, in his Pulitzer-worthy book, wittily describes as "the greatest exit in American history."
Unfortunately for Washington, he rode back. He chaired the constitutional convention and unanimously was selected president, not for his mind but for what he was in the public mind. No longer in the field, he was not prepared for the slophouse of politics where the hypocrite, the devious, the envious, the greedy and the intellectually pretentious constantly dine. In the struggle between Federalists and Republicans, he suffered reports that he was senile, naturally slow in mind, a dupe in a Federalist conspiracy, a British bribe-taker, and a puppet of Hamilton. Jefferson dismayed him by secretly paying newspapers to libel him. In the rage over the Jay Treaty, he observed, in earshot of shouted threats and insults, the principle of avoiding foreign alliances in the absence of the nation's self-interest.
The unyielding political strife drove the retired Washington into the great blunders of his life. He endorsed the idea of a provisional army in order to crush a perceived threat of Republican subversion and he gave his blessing to the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts.
Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin, all agreed, Ellis tell us, that Washington was by far their superior. If so, it was because there was conjoined in him an ordinary man and an iron-willed leader who had marched into the mouth of hell with a ragbag army and then out of it with a nation. Who among them could have led those poor, young men whose bloody footprints were in the snow at Valley Forge, that "pathetically small collection of marginal men", writes Ellis, "the common soldiers of the Continental army."