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The elusive George

Joseph Ellis focuses on the 'psychological chemistry' and dark inner forces of the father of our country

His Excellency: George Washington
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95

Many readers know Joseph Ellis for his books on John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and "Founding Brothers," which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Ellis is an academic historian who can write, with clarity and grace. He has a gift for reaching a broad public with substantive books on serious subjects. In his latest work, he has done it again. This is an important and challenging work: beautifully written, lively, serious, and engaging, if not entirely convincing to this reader.

The author tells us that his book is not meant to be a rounded biography, but rather an essay "focused tightly on Washington's character." It centers on the "psychological chemistry" of his subject, in a "quest for the famously elusive personality of the mature man-who-became-a-monument."

This is an interesting problem, not only for Washington himself, but for a major group of American leaders, and for leadership in general. A similar psychological chemistry appears in Robert E. Lee, George C. Marshall, and others who had roots in the same regional culture of Virginia's Northern Neck.

The methods of psychobiography are severely challenged by these men. They were extremely reticent about personal feelings and private lives. Washington carefully preserved his public papers, but he destroyed his intimate correspondence, and urged others to do the same. Few sources survive from his youth. In maturity he cultivated a distance from strangers, and his friends fiercely protected his privacy. Ellis complains of the "interpretive dilemma posed by a man of action who seems determined to tell us what he did, but equally determined not to tell us what he thought about it." Altogether, the task of writing a psychobiography of Washington is a bit like climbing Mount Rushmore without a rope.

Many scholars have tried to solve the riddle of Washington's psychological chemistry. Samuel Eliot Morison connected Washington's character to a strong stoic tradition. Bruce Mazlish and Don Higginbotham developed a theme of "Revolutionary asceticism" among leaders of great causes. An essay by Edmund Morgan analyzed Washington's "genius for power" in personal terms. All of this work linked character to values, personality to belief.

Others seek a dark flaw or deep conflict within a great leader, which might account for his actions. This approach has the appeal of high drama, but it tends to diminish the qualities of greatness that it seeks to explain.

This is the method that Ellis has chosen. He is at pains to take us beyond the conventional idea of Washington as a leader who won the trust of others by honesty, virtue, dignity, and character; a man not consumed by ambition or avarice, but driven by his ideals, and devoted to the principles of the Revolution.

Ellis will have none of this interpretation. He dismisses it as a fiction and even a deliberate falsehood, "fabricated" in large part by Washington himself. In its place, he argues that the true Washington was a man of "tumultuous passions," "aggressive instincts," "bottomless ambition," "personal avarice," and "a truly monumental ego with a massive personal agenda."

Many men who knew Washington agreed on the passions but believed that he gained full control of them. Ellis argues to the contrary that Washington never mastered himself, and "his aggressive instincts would remain a dangerous liability" through his career. The thesis of this book is that Washington's life was a continuing struggle against dark inner forces, which led to an "obsession with control," which in turn caused him to favor control mechanisms for America, including a highly disciplined regular army, strong central government, and hierarchical society.

Psychological interpretations of this sort are difficult to test, but one can ask if they fit external evidence and enlarge our understanding. Some elements of Ellis's conflict model are solidly confirmed by other sources. Jefferson wrote of Washington, "his temper was naturally high toned, but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy. If however, it broke its bounds, he was most tremendous in his wrath." Adams added, "He had great self-command. It cost him great exertion sometimes, and a constant constraint." Many historians have noticed Washington's striking resemblance to his favorite model, Joseph Addison's Cato, who "while good, and just, and anxious for his friends," was "still severely bent against himself."

That evidence supports part of Ellis's thesis, but as his argument unfolded, this reader found himself arguing back. After an introduction, the book begins with Washington's misadventures at the beginning of the French and Indian War. Ellis finds this period full of clues to Washington's psychic chemistry, as it came before the "internal editing process developed its full power." He characterizes the young Washington as extremely aggressive, ruthlessly ambitious, and not overscrupulous as to means. In that regard he makes repeated allegations of duplicity and dishonesty, even accusing Washington of a "bald-faced lie." So much for the story of the cherry tree!

Ellis succeeds in giving us an image of a young Washington who was very different from the myths and monuments. But is it accurate? In some ways, yes. Much evidence survives of young Washington's fierce ambition, and his superiors knew how quick-tempered he could be. But they also noted his integrity, probity, and honesty even to a fault. The men who soldiered with Washington also noticed something else, especially on the day of Braddock's defeat. Before that battle, Washington was severely ill. He struggled back to the army the day before it met the French and Indians. As the British and provincial units came apart, and 62 of 96 officers were killed or wounded, he took a leading role with high courage, command presence, and a clarity of purpose that awed the men who were there. Ellis writes that the event "underlined the young man's chief characteristic, which was a knack for sheer survival." Others at the time were more impressed by Washington's "gallant behavior." Eyewitnesses reported that he acted with "the greatest courage and resolution," and attributed these qualities to a unity of character that was strongest when things went wrong. They also recognized a rare gift of charismatic leadership. One Virginian wrote, "People in these Parts seem very desirous of serving under the brave Colonel Washington," even after a terrible defeat. In 1755, at 23, he was appointed commander in chief of forces in Virginia. This is a problem of psychological chemistry that takes us to Washington's strengths, rather than his weaknesses. It is missed here.

The book moves on to Washington's life in Virginia before the Revolution. Ellis argues that Washington's alleged inner conflicts developed from his origins as a "self-made man," and a "recently-arrived aristocrat," who made his way by marrying a rich widow he did not love. The book argues that the "decision to marry Martha Custis most shaped his own life," by bringing him great wealth. It is true that Washington aggressively increased his landed wealth, and that Custis brought him a big dowry in land and slaves. But he was not "recently arrived," or a "self-made man" (and never an "aristocrat"). Washington descended from an armigerous family in England. Before he inherited Mount Vernon, four generations of his Virginia family had each become more affluent than the one before. After the early death of Washington's father, two of the most powerful men in Virginia became his patrons and mentors.

With their aid and his family ties, Washington became master of Mount Vernon and owner of thousands of acres before his marriage. His military career started with a commission at the rank of major when he was 21. By birth and breeding, he was part of a small elite of Virginia landowners. Without his wealth and connections, he could not have won the hand of Custis. Ellis's stress on the marriage leaves too many formative elements out of the picture, and his idea of Washington as a self-made man is far off the mark.

Also missing is the complex code of values and ideals in which the young Washington was raised. This becomes a problem when Ellis discusses Washington's decision to join the Revolution. Ellis explains it as a psychic response to material problems with British merchants: "the psychological nub of it lay in an utter loathing for any form of dependency, a sense of his own significance, and a deep distrust of any authority beyond his direct control."

Ellis is right about the British merchants, as recent research by Bruce Ragsdale has documented. But he is wrong about "utter loathing of any form of dependency." Washington rejected dependency on Parliament, king, and empire, but he fully accepted subordination to Congress, the republic, and the sovereign people.

Washington's Revolutionary ideals made all the difference, but Ellis minimizes the importance of idealism in Washington's career. We are told that at an early age Washington acquired "immunities against any and all forms of youthful idealism," a thought repeated through the book. Ellis thinks that Washington was a hard-eyed realist, determined that "ideals per se must never define his agenda."

A problem for this argument is that Washington's writings are crowded with ringing affirmations of Revolutionary ideals. Ellis dismisses these passages as a "platitudinous version of Revolutionary rhetoric," and adds, "how much of this rhetoric Washington himself believed is unclear." Washington's friends and enemies alike testified to the contrary, that he deeply believed what he wrote. Like Cromwell's captain, Washington knew what he fought for, and loved what he knew. He was of one mind about that, which makes trouble for Ellis's thesis.

The book goes on to study Washington's role in the War of Independence. "He was not by any standard a military genius," Ellis writes, "he lost more battles than he won; indeed he lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history." Many historians have criticized the generalship of Washington and his British opponents. Ellis draws heavily on this secondary work, and combines it with the psychological thesis that "his defeats were frequently a function of his overconfident and aggressive personality, especially during the early stages of the war when he escaped to fight another day only because the British generals opposing him seemed choked in a kind of caution." The author also argues that trouble flowed from Washington's "obsession with control," and a tendency to regard any "failure to meet his exacting standards as a personal affront." Altogether, Ellis gives us the most negative interpretation of Washington's generalship since the debunkers of the 1930s. Every victory is minimized or attributed to others. Every defeat is explained as a personal failure. He finds so little to praise in Washington's record that he judges the smallpox inoculation of the army "the most important strategic decision of his military career."

Once more, I found myself arguing back, about the strengths of Washington's strategic resolve and operational flexibility, about his choice of strategies, his success in many campaigns, his open-style leadership (no obsession with control here), his relations with Congress and the states (or here), his skill as commander in chief and coalition leader (or here again), and his linkage of Revolutionary ideals to the conduct of the war.

Ellis's last chapters on the Constitution and the presidency are much stronger. He knows the primary sources better for the early republic than the war years, and he gives the psychological chemistry a rest. Washington appears as an extraordinarily able and effective leader who brought out the best in his fractious subordinates. The author also does a good job with the problem of race and slavery; his discussion is a model of sensitivity, maturity, and balance.

Altogether Ellis's book is a brave attempt to explore the psychological chemistry of a pivotal figure on modern history. Even for readers who do not share his judgments, he has given us a book that will inspire other research. In that process, it will deepen our understanding of its subject. 

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