The Foundingest Father
Forget the generic “Presidents Day” – this is the real birthday of George Washington, the indispensible man whose presence on the battlefield, in conference, and in the presidency truly made the difference between freedom and failure in the earliest days of the Republic.
One of the best biographies I’ve read on any subject is Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency, George Washington. I reviewed it for Carolina Journal in 2005, and it’s still one of my favorites. You can read it below.
“The Foundingest Father”
George Washington is the original American icon, as close as our pocket change and enigmatic as his monument. Joseph Ellis recalls his own childhood in Alexandria, Va.; the great man, he says, was “ubiquitous … like one of those Jeffersonian truths, self-evident and simply there. And the beauty of all self-evident truths was that no one needed to talk about them. They were so familiar that no one felt obliged to explain why they merited an annual parade.”
Washington has long suffered from biographers “oscillating in a swoonish swing between idolization and evisceration.” Ellis aims for the middle course and hits it squarely. The cold and formidable Washington, so imposing that even close associates drew back from familiarity, emerges as a man of like passions with ourselves.
Why is it, Ellis asks, that Washington was surrounded by men much more brilliant, better-educated, and more politically astute than himself, but was still regarded by contemporaries as the greatest of his generation?
Part of it is his education by failure. His experience in the French and Indian War included a massacre, a surrender, and a near-rout, which taught him to value British discipline but not British tactics. Although he developed a lasting distrust of untrained militia, he readily adapted their practical experience in Indian-style wilderness fighting.
As Ellis notes, Washington was one of the few in his generation who lived long enough to truly understand the British mindset on the field, and he was able “to combine a broad-gauged grasp of his mission, in all its inherent frustrations, with a meticulous attention to detail.” It served him well in the Revolution, where Washington presided over a rout on Long Island, the capture of the nation’s Capitol, logistical nightmares like Valley Forge — and then Yorktown. To the end, he had an uncanny way of emerging from disaster unscathed, with reputation glowing.
Ellis traces this partly to his grueling wilderness experience, and partly to a romantic attachment to a neighbor’s wife before Washington’s marriage to Martha Custis. Although the latter left a series of tantalizing and potentially embarrassing letters, there is no evidence Washington ever went beyond accepted boundaries of propriety.
Always fearless under fire, the discovery that he could be deeply moved by other things taught Washington tremendous self-control. “Two of Washington’s abiding characteristics his aloofness and his capacity for remaining silent—were in all likelihood protective tactics developed to prevent detection of the combustible materials simmering inside,” Ellis believes.
In his private correspondence, and occasional confidences or outbursts to trusted staff, the warm-blooded Washington fills the room. His battlefield cashiering of Charles Lee at Monmouth Court House is famous but uncharacteristically public. More typical is his private tirade against Virginia leadership who avoided the fatigues of the conflict. “Where is Mason, Wythe, Jefferson, Nicholas, Pendleton, Nelson, and another I could name?” he railed; the “other” was the recipient of the letter, Benjamin Harrison.
There are three enduring questions about Washington’s legacy. For starters, was he really as honest as that? Contemporary hagiography provided much amusement for later Reconstructionists, yet Washington did hold himself to a strict ideal of rectitude. The Roman republic inspired not only our government but a personal ethic for a generation; Ellis only brushes this lightly, but it is plain that Washington’s sense of duty, self-denial, and the coming judgment of history meshed with the stoic Roman ideal and stabilized his course.
A second matter is Washington’s religious beliefs. Modern wisdom labels him a deist, and his lay service in the Anglican Church a cynical connection for political rather than spiritual gain. On the other hand, he could have been sincere, and statements cited now as evidence of his supposed deism could be simply the broadly religious language common at the time. Ellis’s brief evaluation of Washington as “a lukewarm Episcopalian” is probably fair, and from all accounts as much as we are likely to determine at this distance.
The knottiest problem for Washington’s legacy, like many of the Founders, is his response to slavery. Was there a deep hypocrisy between leading an army to secure the liberty of the colonies, but not to extend that freedom to all men?
Ellis shows that Washington felt the contradiction deeply. Pressed by the need for troops — the army’s commitment was notoriously vague, “constantly sliding from under us as a pedestal of Ice would do from a Statue on a Summers day,” he wrote — he reluctantly accepted free blacks into the ranks. It proved to be the only integrated military America knew until the mid-20th century.
This practical consideration was typical of his dealings with the question. Never a theoretical thinker, Washington had a fundamental desire to treat his servants with fairness and decency, but had a practical dependence on their labor to maintain his plantation economy — including themselves. As it happened, most of their labor went straight for their own support anyway; Washington’s fortunes centered on his western landholdings.
Furthermore, many of the slaves in his control were actually part of the Custis estate, and Washington had no legal authority to dispose of “that species of property.” Caught between revolutionary ideals and the realities of 18th-century Virginia, Washington found the situation all but insoluble. Ultimately, he dictated the terms for freeing his “property” in his will. Emancipation was a radical concept, even to free thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, a slaveholder himself. It might be noted that Thomas Jefferson, also, found no simple path to releasing his slaves, and unlike Jefferson, Washington carries no stigma of inappropriate liaisons with his servants nor line of claimants to his name.
In fact, he left no descendents at all. In the grand irony of history, the universally acclaimed Father of his Country did, in fact, die childless. Yet like his earlier life, where Ellis found “elevation by survival,” this circumstance of his death only serves to boost the legend, leaving Washington still somehow aloof of the rest of his countrymen, then and now. As Ellis observes, “Within the gallery of greats so often mythologized and capitalized as Founding Fathers, Washington was recognized as primus inter pares, the Foundingest Father of them all.” Perhaps it is appropriate that the American Cincinnatus founded no dynasty — just a nation.
(Carolina Journal, December 2005)