His Excellency George Washington
by
Joseph J. Ellis

Page Contents

The young George Washington

The French and Indian War (Seven Years War)

The American Revolution 

The mature George Washington

The Constitutional Convention

President George Washington

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Vol. 7, No. 11, 11/1/05.

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The making of the man:

 

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  What kind of man was George Washington - as Commander in Chief during the Revolutionary war - when presiding at the Constitutional Convention - and as the new nation's first President? What were his contributions to the founding of the new nation of a free people? Joseph J. Ellis, in "His Excellency George Washington," provides answers to these key questions.
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Washington actively shaped his reputation - making himself into the man whom everyone could trust to wield the powers needed to pursue his strategic vision.

  Washington was the indispensable man. This was no accident of birth or circumstances. He actively shaped his reputation - making himself into the man whom everyone could trust to wield the powers needed to pursue his strategic vision. He skillfully and determinedly sought those positions of power as they were created and, uniquely among commanders of successful revolutionary armies, he voluntarily stepped down - relinquishing his positions of power after his periods of service.

  • He was the indispensable Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary army. He held it together by sheer determination, force of will and the attraction of his personality. He was the man who could be trusted by all to wield the powers of command of the new army. He established the principle of civilian control - no matter how disappointing that civilian control might prove to be. He established the principle of orderly relinquishment of command. Unlike other leaders of successful revolutionary armies, he would not die with his boots on.

  • He was the indispensable presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention. He assured its focus on the establishment of a stronger Union of a free people. By the stature that he had earned, he gave it legitimacy as the creator of an entirely new system of government. He then led the effort supporting ratification.

  • He was the indispensable first President of the new United States of America. He held together the different and differing sections of the young nation while the glues of Union began to set, and attracted to his service the best of the leaders of the differing factions that would virulently contest for political and ideological control of the government after his presidency. Among his many accomplishments, he established the precedent of voluntary relinquishment of the presidency - stepping down after two terms. He would not die in office.

He was "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."

 

The kind of education he received during those wars, like the smallpox he had contracted in Barbados, left scars that never went away, as well as immunities against any and all forms of youthful idealism."

  Scraping aside the encumbering mythology, Ellis examines the meager solid evidence about George Washington's early years. The picture is that of an ambitious, physically strong young man with the equivalent of a grade school education - from a lower echelon of the Virginia planter class - seeking service with the wealthy and powerful of the middle 1700s - and performing that service faithfully and well. He was "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."
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  Life in his Virginia was still a rugged, uncertain affair - savage beyond the Blue Ridge mountains - with sickness and death a familiar visitor in every household. Simply by surviving, Washington inherited modest estates while still in his twenties. Meanwhile, two European superpowers - England and France - vied for control of the vast Ohio Country - uncaring about the prior claims of the Indian nations that dominated it.
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  Washington was "caught up in larger public causes"
even at the start of his career. In 1753, as a young emissary carrying diplomatic messages deep into the Ohio Country to the French outpost at Presque Isle, he was involved in an opening diplomatic salvo in "nothing less grand than the global struggle between the contending world powers for supremacy over half a continent." During the subsequent conflict - The Seven Years War - known as the French and Indian War in America - Washington spent most of five years on military expeditions west of the Blue Ridge mountains.

  "[This] provided him with a truly searing set of personal experiences that shaped his basic outlook on the world. Instead of going to college, Washington went to war. And the kind of education he received, like the smallpox he had contracted in Barbados, left scars that never went away, as well as immunities against any and all forms of youthful idealism."

Not for the last time, he conducted himself bravely on the field of battle, exposed himself readily to the fire of his adversaries, and with death all around him, came through providentially without a scratch.

  His early military record was dubious but brave. There was an initial defeat at Fort Necessity while in command of a small detachment. Then, young and inexperienced, he was thrown into command of a larger force by the death of his commander and other superior officers, and executed a skillful retreat. This was the defeat of Gen. Braddock in 1755 - the "massacre at the Monongahela."
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  Washington was learning his military lessons the hard way - through experience in defeat. Not for the last time, he conducted himself bravely on the field of battle, exposed himself readily to the fire of his adversaries, and with death all around him, came through providentially without a scratch. (In so many ways, providence seemed to play a major role in the successful formation of the United States.)
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  Given a Virginia regiment
in 1755 at the age of 23, Washington learned the arts of command. He was conscientious, a firm disciplinarian, and proud of his regiment. The regiment acquitted itself well in the impossible task of safeguarding the small scattered settlements west of the Blue Ridge mountains. However, the focus of the war had shifted north to Canada and the Great Lakes.
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  The interests of his regiment - and of Washington, himself - were intimately attached to Virginia politics. Washington became involved in political maneuvering over orders and resources. His primary asset was his reputation, which he protected at all costs - highlighting his accomplishments and spinning his defeats into honorable engagements.
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The meagerness of resources for his commands, and the sustaining of reputation, would be constant concerns during his service as a commander in the French and Indian War - and in the Revolutionary war to come.

  Lacking great wealth or political influence, Washington realized early the importance of reputation, and conducted himself accordingly for the rest of his life. There would always be competitors for command and political adversaries who would attack him at every opportunity. He energetically countered any criticism of his own actions or motives. The meagerness of resources for his commands, and the sustaining of reputation, would be constant concerns during his service as a commander in the French and Indian War - and in the Revolutionary war to come.

  "Two features of the emerging Washington personality come into focus here: first, a thin-skinned aversion to criticism, especially when the criticism questioned his personal motives, which he insisted were beyond reproach; second, a capacity to play politics effectively while claiming total disinterest in the game."

  Washington's regiment served in the vanguard in the final effort in 1758 to take Fort Duquesne and secure the Ohio Country. He was a key adviser to the commander of the expedition, Gen. John Forbes. However, loyal to Virginia, Washington maneuvered strenuously in favor of the established Braddock route into the Ohio Country, which ran from Virginia, and against cutting a new but shorter route through Pennsylvania. In the event, the Pennsylvania route was adopted - generally along the route of the current Pennsylvania turnpike. This British command proved to be competent, and the Fort was taken without a fight as the undermanned French garrison fled.
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"His courage, his composure, and his self-control were all of a piece, having developed within that highly lethal environment that was the Ohio Country, where internal shields provided the only defense against the dangers that came at you from multiple angles."

  Washington had quickly decided on a military career as the route to the esteem that he craved. Despite the early defeats - with their hardships and carnage - he actively sought military commissions and support for his military efforts. He had taken part in two defeats and a "hollow" ultimately unchallenged victory in the Ohio Country, but had always acquitted himself well amid the chaos on the fields of battle.

  "He had shown himself to be physically brave, impetuously so at Fort Necessity, and personally proud, irrationally so in the Forbes campaign. His courage, his composure, and his self-control were all of a piece, having developed within that highly lethal environment that was the Ohio Country, where internal shields provided the only defense against the dangers that came at you from multiple angles."

  Colonel Washington "married well." Martha Dandridge Custis was the wealthiest widow in Virginia. The evidence is that he passionately loved another woman - but she was already married to his best friend.
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  Along with lands he was accumulating in the west and his modest inheritances, this marriage assured Washington's place in American planter aristocracy. He would be the epitome of the Aristotelian aristocrat - using his freedom from the ordinary cares of life to serve the community and ultimately the nation. (This, of course, was a model that the vast majority of aristocrats did not care to follow.)
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  However, that was still years in the future. Ellis sums up what can be said about the early development of Washington's character.

  "If we are looking for emergent patterns of behavior, then the combination of bottomless ambition and near obsession with self-control leaps out. What will in later years be regarded as arrogant aloofness began in his young manhood as a wholly protective urge to establish space around himself that bullets, insults, and criticism could never penetrate. Because he lacked both the presumptive superiority of a British aristocrat and the economic resources of a Tidewater grandee, Washington could only rely on the hard core of his own merit, his only real asset, which had to be protected by posting multiple sentries at all vulnerable points. Because he could not afford to fail, he could not afford to trust. For the rest of his life, all arguments based on the principle of mutual trust devoid of mutual interest struck him as sentimental nonsense.
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  "A few other abiding features were also already locked in place. He combined personal probity with a demonstrable flair for dramatic action whenever opportunity -- be it a war or a wealthy widow -- presented itself. He took what history offered, and was always poised to ride the available wave in destiny's direction."

The Virginia planter:

  Washington lived the life of a Virginia planter for the next 16 years. He more than doubled the acreage of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres as neighboring tracts became available, while doubling to over 100 the number of slaves used to work them.
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Washington blamed his London merchant contact, and the English mercantile system, for his lack of control over his economic life.

  He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, engaged fully in the planter social life and amusements such as fox hunting and card playing and innumerable balls, and was fully engaged with the "multiple responsibilities to his family, neighbors, and workers." Unlike many of the other planters, he was a disciplined and frugal manager of his estates - dying a wealthy man where Thomas Jefferson and many other planters died deeply indebted. He was not above paying attention to detail and counting pennies.
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  At this point, owning slaves was just an ordinary part of life to him. He would be "exposed to a broader set of opinions on the matter" when he left Virginia to command the Revolutionary army in the north. It was his policy that families were not to be broken up by sales, and he was attendant to the health and working conditions of his slaves, but with a couple of exceptions, they were just property to him.

  "This is not a man 'to the manor born,' but a recently arrived aristocrat who, before he married a fortune, was accustomed to scrambling, literally dodging bullets; a man unwilling, indeed unable, to take anything for granted. It is not that he was insecure, quite the opposite; but the security he enjoyed had a sharp edge designed to clear the  ground around it of any and all threats to its survival. He is the kind of man who will impose impossibly meticulous expectations on his overseers, even on his hounds, and always come away disappointed in their performance. Finally, this is the kind of man who will regard any failure to meet his exacting standards as a personal affront, and persistent failure as evidence of a conspiracy to deprive him of what is rightfully his."

  The three Custis Tidewater plantations comprised about 18,000 acres and well more than 200 slaves. Washington was entitled to one third and managed the whole for Martha and her two children. The tobacco of these lands provided the bulk of Washington's cash crop. It enabled him to spend lavishly on imports for Martha and himself and for furnishings for Mount Vernon. It enabled him to go 1,800£ in debt on his London accounts as cheap Spanish tobacco drove down prices. This was a large sum. Washington blamed Robert Cary, his London merchant contact, and the English mercantile system that controlled his economic life.

  "All the risks of weather, spoilage, market fluctuations, and shipping mishaps fell on Washington's side of the ledger. All the leverage lay with Cary. Every time one of the invoices from Cary & Company arrived at Mount Vernon, it served as a stark statement of Washington's dependence on invisible men in faraway places for virtually his entire way of life. If the core economic problem was tobacco, the core psychological problem was control, the highest emotional priority for Washington, which, once threatened, set off internal alarms that never stopped ringing."

The seeds of rebellion:

  Washington's evolution towards rebellion is perceptively analyzed by Ellis.
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He believed avidly that "developments in America's future lay in the west, on a continental scale so large and unexplored that no one fully fathomed its potential."

  When the Stamp Act was imposed in 1765 as a (perfectly reasonable) measure to help defray the costs of managing England's North American empire, Washington - although not taking an active role - was predisposed to view the opposition favorably. He began to grow wheat in Mount Vernon, and began shifting his commercial interests away from dependence on the London markets. He completed that task - just in time as it turned out - in 1774. He was not going to die broke like Jefferson and so many other planters.

  This display of remarkable foresight demonstrated a commercial astuteness seldom noted by commentators. Obviously - although not academically tutored like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson or James Madison - Washington was, among many other things, as intellectually astute as any of the founding fathers.

  Washington's early military career in the Ohio Country made him familiar with the vast potential beyond the mountains. He believed avidly that "developments in America's future lay in the west, on a continental scale so large and unexplored that no one fully fathomed its potential." He continuously tried to position Virginia as the gateway to the west. He maneuvered determinedly to acquire vast rich acreage in the Ohio Country.
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  Of course, there were the Indians. In his matter of fact fashion, Washington knew that the surge of settlers heading west from the colonies would inevitably outnumber the Indians and sweep them away.

  "In fact, Washington's avid pursuit of acreage, like his attitude toward slavery, was rather typical of Virginia's planter class. He was simply more diligent in his quest than most. And his resolutely realistic assessment of the Indians' eventual fate was part and parcel of his instinctive aversion to sentimentalism and all moralistic brands of idealism, an instinct that deservedly won plaudits in later contexts, as disappointing as it was in this one."

Determined men skilled in the arms they carried were already streaming west into the Ohio territory to seek their fortune.

 

Inevitably he had begun to see London as more of an obstacle than an asset for his future and for the future of Virginia.

  However, the politics of London's Royal Court was another matter. In the 1760s, Royal Proclamations and executive rulings attempted to confine the colonists to the Atlantic seaboard - in effect, reserving the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River for future grant by the Crown.
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  Washington, again in his matter of fact fashion, knew that this was absurd. Determined men skilled in the arms they carried were already streaming west into that territory to seek their fortune. Washington thus acted as if these edicts didn't exist - but inevitably he had begun to see London as more of an obstacle than an asset for his future and for the future of Virginia. The future lay in the west - and it was a future worth fighting for - whether it was the French or the Indians or Royal edicts that had to be fought.
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  However, in the mid 1760s, Ellis notes that Washington was not yet disloyal to England. He was clearly relieved when the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. For the next three years, he took no part in the opposition to the Townshend Act import duties that replaced the Stamp Act taxes. However, he was clearly affected. By 1769, he was clearly writing in his correspondence of the need to take action to preserve "the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors." He supported the non-importation movement - viewing war as a last resort.

  "On May 18, 1769, he presented the proposal calling for a colony-wide boycott of enumerated English manufactured goods, to include a cessation of the slave trade. George Mason had actually drafted the proposal, but could not present it himself because his long-standing reluctance to leave the secure confines of Gunston Hall meant that he refused to stand for election to the House of Burgesses. This was an important moment in Washington's public career, for he now became an acknowledged  leader in the resistance movement within Virginia's planter class."

To him, petitions and abstract arguments were worse than worthless. The colonies must not be subjected to the same domination by London, he wrote, "as the Blacks we rule over with such arbitrary Sway."

 

He packed his military uniform and a military treatise - hoping for a peaceful resolution of disputes, but clearly already preparing for war.

  By the time of the Boston Tea Party and the British response - labeled by the colonists "the Intolerable Acts" - which closed Boston's port and imposed martial law on Massachusetts, Washington was ready to play an active role in the opposition. To him, petitions and abstract arguments were worse than worthless. The colonies must not be subjected to the same domination by London, he wrote, "as the Blacks we rule over with such arbitrary Sway."
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  Ellis ventures that Washington was probably influenced in his rhetoric if not also in his views by George Mason, with whom he was in repeated contact. The author explains how a rhetoric of conspiracy and corruption flowed from the opposition Whigs in England to the colonial intellectual opposition. However, Washington - admittedly unsophisticated in history and English politics - attributed his increasingly rebellious beliefs to "an Innate Spirit of Freedom" within himself that found the conduct of the "Lordly Masters in Great Britain - - - repugnant to every principle of natural justice."
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  His treatment by his British commanders when serving as a mere colonial in the English army - his sense of vulnerability from his commercial ties to the London tobacco market - the restraints of the British mercantile system - and the obstructions posed by London authorities for his real estate ambitions in the Ohio Country - had certainly not predisposed him towards affection for the government in London or even for England. (Benjamin Franklin would have a similar experience when serving colonial interests in London at this time.) 

  "All of which is to suggest that Washington did not have to read books by radical Whig writers or receive an education in political theory from George Mason in order to regard the British military occupation of Massachusetts in 1774 as the latest installment in a long-standing pattern. His own ideological origins did not derive primarily from books but from his own experience with what he had come to regard as the imperiousness of the British Empire. - - - At the psychological nub of it all lay 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."

  At a convention in Williamsburg in August, 1774, Washington was chosen third among the seven delegates sent to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He packed his military uniform and a military treatise - hoping for a peaceful resolution of disputes, but clearly already preparing for war.

  "Off he then went to Philadelphia, where he performed according to form: silent during the debates but thoroughly dedicated to opposing the Intolerable Acts and supporting a rigorous Continental Association against British imports."

The American Revolution:

  In 1775, Virginia started raising military units and mobilizing for defense. Action became more important than rhetoric and Washington - as the colony's most notable military figure - rose in prominence.
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His military career was undistinguished and limited to the command of a mere regiment. He was learning how to organize an army from books he had just acquired.

 

Inevitably, he also knew that his reputation and all his estates and the future of his family had been placed squarely on the line

  Washington was already widely trusted not to abuse a position of power. He received 106 of 108 votes cast for delegates to the second Continental Congress. He became the acknowledged leader - and Mount Vernon the unofficial headquarters - for planning Virginia's actions. 
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  Ellis makes three significant points about this critical phase of Washington's career.

  • It was the occupation of Boston by British troops that convinced Washington that war was probably unavoidable. After the Lexington and Concord firefights, when major English reinforcements were reported heading for Boston, he accelerated his own preparations for military command.
  • Washington was already by far the most trusted candidate to lead the new American army. Ellis doubts John Adams' claim of having influenced that decision. Washington was the leading candidate from the strongest and most wealthy colony - looked like a general - and carried himself like a leader.

  "As the need intensified for a symbol of inter-colonial unity who could consolidate the disparate and even chaotic response of thirteen different colonies to the British military threat, he satisfied the requirements visually and politically more completely than anyone else."

  • In a style that became common for him, he cloaked his ambition with words of reluctance and a modest statement of his lack of qualification. If the former was mere political subterfuge, the latter was all too true. His military career was undistinguished and limited to the command of a mere regiment. He was learning how to organize an army from books he had just acquired.

  "While everyone around him was caught up in patriotic declarations about the moral supremacy of the American cause, Washington remained  immune to the inflated rhetoric, keenly aware that a fervent belief in the worthiness of a crusade was no guarantee of its ultimate triumph."

  And, inevitably, he also knew that his reputation and all his estates and the future of his family had been placed squarely on the line - a year before John Hancock and the other revolutionary leaders put their names on the Declaration of Independence.
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Commander in Chief:

  Washington's military record remained undistinguished well into the war, Ellis notes. He lost more battles than he won, and survived primarily because of the lack of vigor of his opponents.
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He quickly rejected revolutionary ideology in favor of building a conventional army that could sustain the fight for the long haul and an image of leadership that was almost magisterial.

 

Of long lasting importance was his emphasis on civilian control of the military - including of himself as Commander in Chief.

  However, he did demonstrate some notable attributes.

  "He was composed, indefatigable, and able to learn from his mistakes. He was convinced that he was on the side of destiny -- or, in more arrogant moments, sure that destiny was on his side. Even his critics acknowledged that he could not be bribed, corrupted, or compromised. Based on his bravery during several battles, he apparently believed he could not be killed. Despite all his mistakes, events seemed to align themselves with his own instincts."

  Ellis goes into much more than just the military aspects of Washington's command. Most important was the propaganda effort that sustained his image and supported the war effort.
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  Also vital was his pragmatic approach to leadership. He sought military talent and found it in the most unlikely places, supported it loyally and demanded loyalty in return. He quickly rejected revolutionary ideology in favor of building a conventional army that could sustain the fight for the long haul and an image of leadership that was almost magisterial. While he had no patience with sycophants, he did accept the title of "His Excellency" with which many people addressed him. "Washington acknowledged the incongruity but preferred victory to consistency."
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  Of long lasting importance was his emphasis on civilian control of the military - including of himself as Commander in Chief. (Here, Washington remains unique among the major revolutionary leaders in history.)

  "His letters to John Hancock, the first president of the Congress, always took the form of requests rather than demands. And he established the same posture of official deference toward the New England governors and provincial governments that supplied troops for his army. Washington did not use the term 'civilian control,' but he was scrupulous about acknowledging that his own authority derived from the elected representatives in the Congress. If there were two institutions that embodied the emerging nation to be called the United States -- the Continental army and the Continental Congress -- he insisted that the former was subordinate to the latter."

The war was not won by the American people - an increasing number of whom did not support the war. It was won by a small number of officers leading men generally "from the lowest rung of American society who determined to persevere simply because they had no brighter prospects."

  However, that civilian control constantly thwarted his efforts to raise and maintain a regular army. The state governments sent only one-year volunteers, and supplies were always short. States refused to tax their citizens or meet their enlistment quotas. Thus, Washington's army was chronically short handed and poorly supplied, and sometimes on the verge of dissolution. The perennial shortage of soldiers quickly led him to accept free blacks in the army, and they then served in the American army integrated on a regular basis with ethnic Europeans - for the last time until the Korean War.
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  The war was not won by the American people - an increasing number of whom did not support the war. It was won by a small number of officers leading men generally "from the lowest rung of American society who determined to persevere simply because they had no brighter prospects." Washington readily resorted to the harshest discipline to keep them in line. However, he admired their toughness and perseverance and - in their rough way - they esteemed and responded to his leadership.
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  Washington attracted good men who willingly served under him and energetically furthered his purposes. At Valley Forge, he had the brilliant young Alexander Hamilton, the drill master Baron von Steuben of dubious lineage, the ardent Marquis de Lafayette of undoubted aristocratic lineage, and the young John Marshall who would write a definitive biography furthering Washington's canonization and would as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court impose "for all time, Washington's version of America's original intentions in his landmark decisions as the nation's preeminent jurist and most influential interpreter of the Constitution."
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  Ellis emphasizes two elements of Washington's military leadership at this early stage - one unfavorable and one favorable. On the one hand, he tended towards reckless aggressiveness and had to be restrained by his staff from launching a direct assault on the British garrison in Boston. He dispatched Benedict Arnold on his ill conceived and disastrous campaign to take Quebec.
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  On the other hand, he was a quick learner. He had learned about small pox in Barbados and headed off disaster by quarantining the afflicted and inoculating his soldiers.
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  Forcing the British out of Boston by placing artillery on Dorchester Heights commanding Boston and its port solidified his position at that early stage of the war. A young Henry Knox had dragged the artillery all the way from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.
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  Ellis provides just a bare bones account of the Revolutionary War - enough to highlight Washington's performance as Commander in Chief. He illustrates the weaknesses of Washington as a tactician and the strengths of his character - including his personal bravery and steadfastness and the physical stamina to sustain the long campaign.
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  Washington was also learning quickly. Initially, in 1776, he was saved by the dilatory campaigning of Gen. William Howe who could easily have wrapped up the whole Continental army in the summer and fall of 1776. However, two small victories saved Washington's reputation - and probably his command - around the end of the year. With Gen. Howe comfortably back in winter quarters in New York with his main force, Washington outmaneuvered Gen. Cornwallis - who was still in the field with about 6,000 men - to win victories over British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton.
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The Continental Army was now supported by a new alliance with France that had been made possible by the victory at Saratoga.

  Washington persevered - despite defeats on the field of battle, rapidly declining popular support for the revolution, growing political criticism, and scanty supplies of men and material from the states. By 1777, he had adopted a far more realistic strategy, but was still exhibiting little improvement in his tactical prowess. On the other hand, although a clearly superior tactician, Gen. Howe demonstrated remarkable incompetence as a strategist.
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  Washington continued the practice of spinning the results of his battles, presenting tactical defeats as victories. However, the most important victory occurred far to the north. Howe had become preoccupied by his meaningless occupation of the Revolutionary capital city of Philadelphia. Gen. Burgoyne - having received no support from Howe - was defeated at Saratoga. This was a disaster for the British cause.
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  The Continental army emerged from Valley Forge in the spring of 1778 drilled by von Steuben. It was also now supported by a new alliance with France that had been made possible by the victory at Saratoga. The Continental Army acquitted itself well in the Battle of Monmouth Court House harrying the British on their withdrawal from Philadelphia. Washington, too, acquitted himself well tactically at this battle - the last major engagement he would take part in until Yorktown.
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The importance of strong national institutions capable of delivering resources when needed was being demonstrated to him in no uncertain terms.

  Britain now shifted its military focus to the south, and Washington realized he was in for a long war. It was about now, Ellis explains, that Washington began to appreciate the strength of British financial and political institutions and the weaknesses of the loosely associated states and the Continental Congress, "which had permitted inflation, corruption, and broken promises" to reach "epidemic" proportions threatening his military efforts. The importance of strong national institutions capable of delivering resources when needed was being demonstrated to him in no uncertain terms.
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  In 1777, Washington began dealing directly with the state governments - requesting money, supplies and fresh recruits. By 1780, he despaired of continuing the war without support from a strong national government.

  "And in typical fashion, his thinking was not driven by theoretical arguments about republican government but by the harsh realities of war he faced as commander in chief, which by 1780 had come to resemble a more painful and protracted version of Valley Forge."

  His army had again been reduced to rags. Troop strength was "about eight thousand, of which fully one-third were not fit for duty." Mutinies occurred among troops from Pennsylvania and New Jersey who had received neither pay nor replacement uniforms and equipment from their states for many months. British forces were winning victory after victory in the south. By early 1781, the American cause looked lost. Yet, in seven months, Washington would win the war.
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  These final seven months show Washington at his stubborn worst - still fixated on battle with the British in New York - and his pragmatic best - finally accepting and fully implementing Count Rochambeau's strategic vision. Washington's French ally had only about 6,000 veteran French soldiers, but also could bring the French fleet into play, so it is not surprising that Rochambeau ultimately - fortunately - had his way.
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  The sudden successes of Generals Morgan and Greene against the southern British force set the stage. The sudden appearance of the French fleet off Yorktown made all things in that theater possible.
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Everything suddenly fell into place for Washington and his French ally - yet again as if by divine intervention.

  Yorktown was a great French victory. The French provided the best siege engineers in the world, and its fleet fended off the British fleet coming to relieve Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown.

  This French fleet victory - which Ellis doesn't mention - would be the last ever won by the French against a British fleet. Later, in the Caribbean, Count de Grasse, the French Admiral, would be soundly trounced by a British fleet of approximately equal size.

  Everything suddenly fell into place for Washington and his French ally - yet again as if by divine intervention. However, Washington did not immediately realize that the victory at Yorktown was decisive. He thought the British would just send another army. His skeptical view of political prospects had become apparent. He favored the strengthening of the national government and his Continental army to meet the threat.
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As soon as a formal peace was established, Washington said emotional goodbyes to his soldiers and to his officers, disbanded his army, resigned his Commission to Congress, and willingly returned to private life. He thus established himself as unique among successful revolutionary leaders.

  The American people remained predominantly opposed to a distant national government with the power of taxation and broad political powers. After all, that was why they supported the revolution - those that did in fact support it. They were fearful of standing armies. Hadn't previous republics been dominated by the legions of Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army? These were, after all, at that time the only two efforts in recorded history to establish republican governments - and both had been overthrown by their own armies.

  In the next two centuries, a multitude of fragile Latin American republics would be overthrown by their own armies. Britain and the other Anglo Saxon republics would thrive under circumstances that permitted them to rely predominantly on naval forces for their immediate defense needs.

    Many believed that "militias were safe and republican, while standing armies were dangerous and monarchical." When Washington insisted on maintaining the Continental army after Yorktown to be ready for the next British military expedition, these fears were reinforced.
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  Washington understood these fears. He quelled speculation that he might assume monarchical powers and push aside the powerless, ineffective Continental Congress. "Banish those thoughts from your mind," he lectured. Such a scheme was "big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my country."
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  And then, Washington stepped down. As soon as a formal peace was established, Washington said emotional goodbyes to his soldiers and to his officers, disbanded his army, resigned his Commission to Congress, and willingly returned to private life. He thus established himself as unique among successful revolutionary military leaders.

  "The man who had known how to stay the course now showed that he also understood how to leave it. Horses were waiting at the door immediately after Washington read his statement. The crowd gathered at the doorway to wave him off. It was the greatest exit in American history."

  With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, several Eastern European nations have since had similar laudable experiences with their revolutionary leaders - but these were not military revolutions. These leaders did not command revolutionary armies.

  This supremely graceful exit clinched Washington's status. He was a living legend - idolized - canonized - not just throughout the nation, but throughout the European world.
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The mature Washington:

 

 

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  Ellis emphasizes this unique aspect of Washington's greatness.

  "We have to linger over this moment to ask what was different about Washington, or what was different about the political conditions created by the American Revolution, that allowed him to resist temptations that other revolutionary leaders before and since found irresistible."

"Whereas Cromwell and later Napoleon made themselves synonymous with the revolution in order to justify the assumption of dictatorial power, Washington made himself synonymous with the American Revolution in order to declare that it was incompatible with dictatorial power."

  Washington had become the embodiment of the Revolution and its dedication to independence. He was openly skeptical about the capacity to govern of the "Confederation Congress" under the new Articles of Confederation. He wrote to the governor of New York:

  "I am decided in my opinion that if the powers of Congress are not enlarged, and made competent to all general purposes, that the Blood which has been spilt, the expence that has been incurred, and the distresses which have been felt, will avail in nothing; and that the band, already too weak, which holds us together, will soon be broken; when anarchy and confusion must prevail."

  He was constantly urging the strengthening of the executive branch. He considered the incompetence of the Continental Congress his greatest disadvantage during the war. Even as he repeatedly pleaded for the pay and benefits his army had been promised, he was readily aware that the Confederation Congress would default. Nevertheless, when the grievances of the army were used in 1783 to foment a military takeover of the government - the "Newburgh Conspiracy" - Washington squelched it as soon as he got wind of it.

  "Whereas Cromwell and later Napoleon made themselves synonymous with the revolution in order to justify the assumption of dictatorial power, Washington made himself synonymous with the American Revolution in order to declare that it was incompatible with dictatorial power."

  Ellis sets forth the drama of Washington's address to his rebellious officers.

  "And let me conjure you, in the name of our Common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National Character of America, to express Your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil Discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood."

  Ellis sums up what these events tell us about Washington at this moment.

  "At the personal level, Washington was declaring that he had sufficient control over his ambitions to recognize that his place in history would be enhanced, not by enlarging his power, but by surrendering it. He was sufficiently self confident, assured about who he was and what he had achieved, to ignore all whisperings of his indispensability. At the ideological level, Washington was declaring that he instinctively understood the core principle of republicanism, that all legitimate power derived from the consent of the public. - - - [He ardently advocated a strong national government, but] he was a republican in the elemental sense that he saw himself as a mere steward for a historical experiment in representative government larger than any single person, larger than himself; an experiment in which all leaders, no matter how indispensable, were disposable, which was what a government of laws and not of men ultimately meant."

He continued to assert the necessity for a strong national government, but perceptively recognized that some crisis must develop before the American people would accept that.

 

There is certainly no evidence of some saintly commitment to the truth in Washington's lifelong practical efforts to enhance and protect the personal reputation that was his greatest asset.

  Now in his 50s, Washington was distinctly conscious of his physical decline and mortality. Like all the Revolutionary leaders, he was aware of the significance of what was being accomplished, and spent considerable efforts burnishing his image and getting his voluminous correspondence ready for history. He continued to assert the necessity for a strong national government, but perceptively recognized that some crisis must develop before the American people would accept that. "The people must feel before they will see," he wrote.

   This problem has afflicted democratic systems since ancient times, and nothing has changed in this regard in the last two centuries. Repeatedly, disastrous but popular policies are stubbornly pursued until they crash in flames. This is what makes democratic government so very vulnerable to demagoguery.

  Washington's correspondence already filled 28 volumes. His postwar correspondence, too, was voluminous, as many people sought contact with the national institution he had become. Here, too, Ellis points out, Washington was conscious of the historic importance of this correspondence, took care to enhance his image, and did what today would be called "spin doctoring" about several defeats that he was involved with during two long wars. There is certainly no evidence of some saintly commitment to the truth in Washington's lifelong practical efforts to enhance and protect the personal reputation that was his greatest asset.
 &
  Ellis views Washington's mature character as "elitist, deferential, virtuous, and honorable." He was certainly no egalitarian.
 &

A great continental empire with immense resources was now in the hands of a free people.

  Soon after victory had been assured, Washington expressed a clear and accurately optimistic evaluation of what had been won. A great continental empire with immense resources was now in the hands of a free people.

  "They are, from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity."

The slaves:

  The anomaly of slavery in a free society was clearly in mind for Washington by the end of the Revolution.
 &

  Not only had Washington commanded an integrated force, but the subject was being raised by Quakers and was discussed in his correspondence with his beloved Lafayette.

  The two previous republics in history - British and Roman - had both existed without apparent concern about their coexistence with slavery. Slavery in one form or another has been a part of human history for all of human history.
 &
  With Quakers in the lead, the U.S. was beginning its conversation on the morality of slavery - a conversation similar to those in England and in other Western nations - a conversation in its breadth and results unique among major cultures up to that point in history. For the first time in history, a dominant culture would question slavery and then act - with military force where necessary - to end this ancient practice.

  Washington nevertheless insisted on the repatriation of escaped slaves at the end of the war. Among the approximately 3,000 escaped slaves carried to freedom from New York by the English navy were four of his own.

  Ellis does not mention that England ultimately dumped many of these freed slaves back in Africa - on the inhospitable and malarial shores of Sierra Leone.

  Emancipation of slaves was in the ideological air, and Lafayette was insistent. Soon, Washington was vowing that he would never again purchase or receive slaves as payment. In his correspondence, he expressed the hope that the legislatures of Virginia and the other states would provide a plan for abolition.
 &

Exactly when Washington decided to free his slaves in his will is unknown - but Ellis speculates that it came during this time.

  However, his attitude toward Mount Vernon and its slave work force remained basically pragmatic. His prewar decision to abandon tobacco for wheat as a cash crop made the labor of his more than 200 slaves prohibitively expensive. "In fact, he owned more slaves than he could productively employ and the surplus was costing him dearly." He actively contemplated not freeing - but selling - his slaves - although never in a way that would break up family units. This posed insuperable difficulties.

  "First, the dower slaves inherited from the Custis estate did not legally belong to him, and were therefore not his to sell; second, the eldest slaves, who had been acquired when he was developing his Mount Vernon properties in the 1760s, were now beyond their prime work years and therefore nearly impossible to sell; third, and most importantly, the multiple and many-layered connections by blood and marriage within the slave population at Mount Vernon virtually precluded any general sale once Washington had resolved not to break up families. By the middle of the 1780s, then, he faced what we might call a truly Faulknerian situation; both he and his black workforce were trapped together in a network of mutual dependency that was spiraling slowly downward toward economic ruin."

  By 1787, the losses at Mount Vernon had become truly burdensome. He calculated that Mount Vernon had been run at a deficit for the previous eleven years.

  "He accepted, grudgingly, the fact that Mount Vernon would never show a profit, because it had become a retirement home and child-care center for many of his slave residents, whom he was morally obliged to care for."

  Exactly when Washington decided to free his slaves in his will is unknown - but Ellis speculates that it came during this time.
 &

The Articles of Confederation:

  The weaknesses of the nation under the Articles of Confederation were all too evident to Washington and many others. He had struggled against such weaknesses for eight years while in command of an army that was "chronically undermanned, under fed, undersupplied."
 &

  Washington did not hide his contempt for the Confederation Congress.

  "Both individual citizens and sovereign states often required coercion to behave responsibly, which meant that the federal government required expanded powers of taxation and ultimate control over fiscal policy. Lacking those powers, Washington believed that 'the Confederation appears to me to be little more than an empty sound, and Congress a nugatory body which, in their current weak condition could only give the vital stab to public credit, and must sink into contempt in the eyes of Europe.'"

  By 1786, influential people like John Jay were already contemplating a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation and were eyeing Washington as the essential leader and figurehead  of that effort. However, the moment was not yet ripe, and Washington was loath "to embark again on a sea of trouble." The American people had not yet suffered sufficient financial tribulations to bring them to accept a stronger national government. Washington was truly loath to come out of retirement at this late stage of his life and risk his status and reputation on another uncertain if undoubtedly needed political venture.
 &

The Constitutional Convention:

 

&

  Shay's Rebellion in 1786 involved about 2,000 indebted farmers in western Massachusetts protesting mortgage foreclosures and higher taxes. They threatened to take over the Springfield armory. The rebellion was quickly put down, but it made widely apparent how readily the new nation could dissolve into chaos in the absence of a stronger national government. This provided the catalyst for calling a convention.
 &

"Washington knew what he knew, essentially that the Articles must be replaced rather than revised, and that the new government needed to possess expanded powers sufficient to make laws for the nation as a whole."

  Ellis examines the conflicting impulses that made Washington first hesitate but ultimately join in the Virginia delegation. He credits "the precocious" James Madison with canvassing the roster of state delegations and then assuring Washington that this convention had the talent and intent "to address the fundamental problem" and succeed.

  "Washington knew what he knew, essentially that the Articles must be replaced rather than revised, and that the new government needed to possess expanded powers sufficient to make laws for the nation as a whole. Beyond that -- more specifically, what the shape of the political architecture constructed on the new foundation might look like -- he acknowledged his need for education. Since it was a foregone conclusion that he would be chosen to preside over the convention, Jay and Madison volunteered their services to give him a tutorial in republican theory."

  Washington's style of leadership was again in evidence. He surrounded himself with the best lieutenants he could find. He knew what the strategic objectives were, but he was willing to listen to his lieutenants about the means for achieving those objectives.

  "Where he needed assistance -- and he was completely comfortable requesting and receiving it - was in mastering the theoretical vocabulary that more formally educated colleagues possessed, learning the intellectual road map to reach the destination he had already decided upon."

  John Jay, "in a remarkably prescient letter," described the government that should be created: Three separate branches - executive, legislative, judicial - with a strong executive not quite possessing monarchical powers - in a national government having a veto over state laws - and the knotty problem of locating "sovereignty" ingeniously resolved by placing it in "The People."
 &
  Madison was accurately tuned into the conflicts
that would have to be resolved at the Convention.

  • Should representation in the legislature be by state - as under the Articles - or by population. He viewed the latter as essential.
  • He, too, favored a veto power over state law.
  • However, he ingeniously recognized that sovereignty could be "mutual and shared" between the national and state governments - the states exercising sovereign powers "whenever they can be subordinately useful." The principles of American federalism were thus taking shape.

The Revolution had won independence - the Constitutional Convention now had to secure it.

 

Washington's presence was essential to provide the needed "air of legitimacy." After all, the Convention was legally empowered only to "revise" the Articles - not replace them.

  Washington would be the presiding presence at the Convention - projecting "otherworldly detachment" - but clearly on the side of a strong national government. The Revolution had won independence - the Constitutional Convention now had to secure it.
 &
  With one minor exception, Washington presided over the debates without participating. He had "the gift of silence" - the ability to remain silent above any occasion while all around him were "squirming under the social pressure to fill the silence with chatty conversation." Here, his silence permitted him to preside above the contentious debates.
 &
  Washington's presence was essential to provide the needed "air of legitimacy." After all, the Convention was legally empowered only to "revise" the Articles - not replace them.

  Washington did not have to engage in the debates. His views were known. He remained the most influential delegate at the Convention. No constitution would be viewed as legitimate without Washington's support, and he would support no constitution that did not substantially strengthen the national government. However, he, too, compromised and accommodated other views. This is the essential requirement for democratic governance.

  Washington's correspondence clearly indicates his dismay at the compromises needed for acceptance of the Constitution. He grieved over the necessity of having a Senate based on representation by state instead of population. The smaller states insisted upon this. He also favored a stronger executive.
 &
  Another major problem - the relative powers of the states and the national government - plagued the Convention and would plague Washington's presidency. (It remains a problem to this day.) Here, the compromises reached were implicit rather than explicit. The issue was fudged by leaving gaping ambiguities in the pertinent Constitutional provisions.
 &
  Ellis sums up Washington's attitude towards the ambiguities in the final document.

  "Over the subsequent decades, and now centuries, the Constitution has been most admired for its artful ambiguities, in effect for refusing to resolve the question of state versus federal sovereignty, for sketching rather faintly the powers of the executive and judicial branches, for establishing a framework in which constitutional arrangements could evolve over the years, rather than providing clear answers at that time. If this has proved to be the genius of the document, Washington thought it was its major weakness. He wanted the ambiguities clarified and the sketches filled out, at least sufficiently so to assure the creation of a national government empowered to force the states and citizenry into a budding American empire."

  The other major compromise was, of course, over slavery -- "the ghost at the banquet." Ellis apparently found nothing about Washington's views on the Constitution's pertinent provisions. See, Monk, "The Words We Live By,"  Part I, "The 1789 Constitution of United States," at "The Preamble," Article I: "The Legislature," Article IV: "The Federal System," and, Article V: "Amendments."

  Mount Vernon became "the electoral headquarters" for the ratification effort after the Convention. Washington quickly recognized the brilliance of the published essays of Hamilton, Madison and Jay and predicted their lasting fame and influence. Today, they are known as "The Federalist Papers."
 &
  Hamilton was under no doubt that Washington must be the first president, but Washington refused to be rushed pending ratification. By the end of the summer of 1788, ratification became official. Washington, with a great display of reluctance, allowed himself to be dragged to the presidency.

  "What makes then so different from now was the aristocratic assumption that any explicit projection of self-interest in the political arena betrayed a lack of control over one's own passions, which did not bode well for the public interest. Washington carried this ethos to an extreme, insisting that any mention of his willingness to serve as president prior to the election violated the code."

President Washington:

 

 

 &

  His denials of interest, however, did not prevent him from making his preparations. He outlined his domestic and foreign policy priorities and consulted on the 73 page draft of his inaugural address - "blessedly never delivered." In the event, he kept his inaugural address brief and innocuous.

  "[He] did not seek this assignment, indeed had hoped to avoid it; but when called he would be ready, once again, to serve."

Washington was the one man who "provided a symbolic solution acceptable to all sides."

 

He was indeed the essential man - preserved by providence on innumerable battlefields - to lead a free people in a strong free nation.

  Washington's priorities were "the restoration of fiscal responsibility and the creation of political credibility for the nascent national government." He would achieve both of these objectives.
 &
  The debates in the Constitutional Convention and then in the state ratifying conventions had been bitterly contested - but the election of Washington was unanimous. Washington was the one man who "provided a symbolic solution acceptable to all sides."

  "He was not chosen for what he thought, but for who he was."

  The people revered him as royalty - a royalty earned, not inherited - and utterly safe, since Washington, the Father of his Country, had no direct descendants. His procession to New York for his inauguration was the occasion for displays of idolization all along the route. The public acclaim reinvigorated him. He was indeed the essential man - preserved by providence on innumerable battlefields - to lead a free people in a strong free nation.
 &

  The fragility of the new nation when Washington became President is emphasized by Ellis. "To transform the improbable into the inevitable" was Washington's "core achievement" here as when Commander in Chief of the Continental army.

  "The roughly four million settlers spread along the coastline and streaming over the Alleghenies felt their primary allegiance, to the extent they felt any allegiance at all, to local, state, and regional authorities. No republican government had ever before exercised control over a population this diffuse or a land mass this large, and the prevailing assumption among the most informed European observers was that, to paraphrase Lincoln's later formulation, a nation so conceived and so dedicated could not endure."

  Like the weak European Union government today, the federal government through the 19th century owed its strength and attractiveness to its weakness. With the notable exception of the Civil War, the benefits it offered were always far more than the obligations it imposed. It thus attracted people to its lightly exercised jurisdiction from far across the continent, and had little trouble retaining the allegiance of its far flung territories.

  Washington set the precedents for the presidency in such areas as the cabinet system, control over foreign policy, the veto, executive appointments, and the setting of the legislative agenda. He did this despite the nation's continuing antipathy towards executive power. Ellis points out that "the Constitution devoted more space to the rules for electing or removing the president than to delineating the powers of the office itself." Washington was well aware of the continuing widespread hostility towards the executive power, and was thus frequently restrained in its exercise. But he viewed that executive power as essential for a viable nation,
 &
  Other precedents set at this time included the use of the republican title, "Mr. President," and the avoidance of discussion of policy issues during social gatherings attended by the President. Washington's birthday became a traditional holiday as early as February, 1790.
 &
  On a more practical level, his first effort to go to the Senate to seek their active "advice and consent" over the terms of treaties with some Indian tribes broke down in lengthy squabbling over particular provisions. Washington stalked out of the chamber, never to return. From that time, "advice and consent" "meant something less than direct executive solicitation of senatorial opinion." The Senate would not be an equal partner in the crafting of treaties.
 &

He regarded his symbolic role as the core function of his presidency.

  His efforts to tie the states into one nation included vastly successful ceremonial visits to all thirteen of them. This was no mean accomplishment in those days of impassable and frequently nonexistent roads. His address on religious freedom - probably written by Jefferson - was an uncompromising endorsement of a principle vital to the tranquility of the diverse nation. However, his efforts were already being challenged by republican fears of executive power.

  "To secure the revolutionary legacy on the national level required a 'singular character' who embodied national authority more visibly than any collective body like Congress could convey. Washington had committed himself to playing that role by accepting the presidency; indeed, he regarded his symbolic role as the core function of his presidency. But at the center of the revolutionary legacy lay a virulent suspicion of any potent projection of political power by a 'singular figure.' And since the very idea of a republican chief executive was a novelty, there was no available vocabulary to characterize such a creature except the verbal traditions surrounding European courts and kings. By playing the role that he believed history required, Washington made himself vulnerable to the most potent set of apprehensions about monarchical power that recent American history could muster."

  Fortunately, the finest cabinet ever to serve a President joined him in office along with some brilliant advisers and policymaking officials. Ellis explains Washington's management style.

  "The cabinet system he installed represented a civilian adaptation of his military staff, with executive sessions of the cabinet resembling councils of war designed to provide collective wisdom in a crisis. As Jefferson later described the arrangement, Washington made himself 'the hub of the wheel' with routine business delegated to the department heads at the rim. It was a system that maximized executive control while also creating the essential distance from details. Its successful operation depended upon two acquired skills Washington had developed over his lengthy career: first, identifying and recruiting talented and ambitious young men, usually possessing superior formal education to his own, then trusting them with considerable responsibility and treating them as surrogate sons in his official family; second, knowing when to remain the hedgehog who keeps his distance and when to become the fox who dives into the details."

  • James Madison was at the height of his intellectual powers, and was a veritable shadow government. He was Washington's speechwriter and a trusted consultant on judicial and executive appointments - a powerful position in any government. He had been the dominant force behind the nationalist agenda at the Constitutional Convention, and coauthor of The Federalist Papers. Now a Congressman, he was Washington's unofficial liaison to Congress, and drafted and pushed through the Bill of Rights.
  • Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State boasted impeccable revolutionary credentials and extensive diplomatic experience - as well as "a lyrical way with words and ideas" epitomized by his draft of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury was perhaps the most brilliant of the three. He had served as Washington's aide-de-camp and led a bayonet charge at Yorktown. He was definitely not a Virginia gentleman. Also a coauthor of The Federalist Papers, he had been "the chief advocate for fiscal reform as the essential prerequisite for an energetic national government."

  Rounding out this impressive roster was Henry Knox, the capable Secretary of War and Washington's trusted lieutenant throughout the Revolution - Vice President John Adams, "a seasoned New England voice" - Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, "New York's most distinguished legal and political mind" and the third coauthor of The Federalist Papers - and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, solidly connected with the influential Tidewater elite.

  Washington's presidency - like all succeeding presidencies - must, of course, be credited with the accomplishments of the men whom he chose for his inner circle and empowered to act for the presidency.

  The relative powers of the state and federal governments remained an issue that was too hot to handle. The effort to assert the supremacy of the federal judiciary would have to await the appointment of another Washington loyalist, John Marshall, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the end of the presidency of John Adams.
 &
  Washington strongly supported a strong federal judiciary "as the keystone of our political fabric," but he pragmatically refrained from stirring up this political hornet's nest. The debates over the Judiciary Act of 1789 establishing the federal court system revealed the latent hostility toward a dominant federal judiciary. The legislation thus "left questions of original and appellate jurisdiction intentionally blurred."

  To this day, Congress still sometimes leaves legislation ambiguous with respect to contentious issues so as to be able to get bills passed. This kicks these hot potatoes down the road for the courts to handle later on.

"The debates in the House only dramatized the intractable sectional differences he had witnessed from the chair at the Constitutional Convention. They reinforced his conviction that slavery was the one issue with the political potential to destroy the republican experiment in its infancy."

  Any immediate confrontation over slavery was also pragmatically avoided. The Quakers were early advocates of abolition. They were now joined in his last years by Benjamin Franklin - the other iconic national figure of the Revolutionary period. Washington shared Franklin's views, but was more concerned with maintenance of the new fragile Union. He supported Madison's deft maneuvers in Congress - kicking the issue down the road to at least 1808 as provided in the Constitution. Until then, the issue was to be left to state law.

  "What strikes us as a poignant failure of moral leadership appeared to Washington as a prudent exercise in political judgment. There is no evidence that he struggled over the decision. Whatever his personal views on slavery may have been, his highest priority was the creation of a unified American nation. The debates in the House only dramatized the intractable sectional differences he had witnessed from the chair at the Constitutional Convention. They reinforced his conviction that slavery was the one issue with the political potential to destroy the republican experiment in its infancy."

  The correctness of this approach is proven by history. Even seven decades later, a much stronger Union was ripped asunder by this issue. Gluing it back together required massive bloodshed.

  One of Washington's personal attendant slaves stayed loyally by Washington's side throughout his presidency - although, in Philadelphia - the nation's capital at that time - slaves were entitled to emancipation under Pennsylvania law. However, at the end of Washington's second term, the servant left - "much to Washington's surprise and chagrin." Despite his expressed convictions against slavery, Washington remained dependant on enslaved servants.
 &

"[Hamilton] proposed funding the federal debt at par, assuming all the state debts, then creating a National Bank to manage all the investments and payments at the federal level."

 

Ominously, Madison, Jefferson and Randolph - all still loyal primarily to Virginia rather than to the new federal government - were leaders of the opposition.

 

"[Hamilton argued] that the 'necessary and proper clause' - - - granted implied powers to the federal government beyond the explicit powers specified."

  Hamilton, however, was not into ambiguity. Nor could the financial markets of the day be fooled by fudging. When Washington despaired of understanding - much less dealing with - the financial situation he had inherited from the Confederation Congress, he gladly dumped the whole mess on the more than willing shoulders of his Treasury Secretary.
 &
  Three months later, Hamilton emerged with a forty-thousand word technical analysis entitled "Report on Public Credit." The quality of this effort has since been verified by a formidable body of scholarship. It supported the simple but controversial strategy that successfully restored the national credit (and indeed sustains it to this day despite some periods of very dubious budgetary and monetary policies).

  "[Hamilton] proposed funding the federal debt at par, assuming all the state debts, then creating a National Bank to manage all the investments and payments at the federal level."

  There was a firestorm of opposition to this nationalizing of economic policy. It took over a year, but Hamilton succeeded in pushing his program through Congress - including the Act establishing the National Bank. Ominously, Madison, Jefferson and Randolph - all still loyal primarily to Virginia rather than to the new federal government - were leaders of the opposition.
 &
  Washington clearly favored Hamilton's efforts, but remained on the sidelines on the issues of federal funding and assumption. In the event, Hamilton proved capable of handling these hot potatoes without Washington's overt support.
 &
  However, the Bank was another matter. Where in the Constitution did Hamilton find federal power to charter corporations? Washington sent this question to Hamilton who responded with a 13,000 word landmark legal analysis "arguing that the 'necessary and proper clause' - - - granted implied powers to the federal government beyond the explicit powers specified." This same argument had been advanced by Madison in The Federalist Papers. It gave Washington the legal opinion he needed to support the Bank.
 &

  These issues - the power of the federal judiciary - the relative powers of the states and the federal government - and racial relations - remain contentious issues to this day. However, they no longer threaten the Union.
 &
  The location and building of the national capital, foreign affairs, and Indian affairs, were three issues that Washington took personal control over. Ellis tells of the squabbling in Congress over the location of the national capital prior to Washington taking control of the matter.
 &
  Washington had definite ideas about foreign affairs.

  "Most elementally, he was a thoroughgoing realist. Though he embraced republican ideals, he believed that the behavior of nations was not driven by ideals but by interests. This put him at odds ideologically and temperamentally with his Secretary of State, since Jefferson was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the belief that American ideals were American interests."

  Although well aware of all that the young nation owed France, Washington readily turned his back on France and the chaos of the destructive kind of revolution taking place there. He focused instead in the other direction - towards the western territories where the nation's real strategic interests lay. Washington and Jefferson both agreed on this western vision, and realistically calculated that a declining Spanish presence in Florida and the Mississippi Valley would soon be swept aside by waves of American settlers.
 &

  Washington's efforts to establish secure Indian sanctuaries for peaceful coexistence with the Indians were also swept away by those waves of American settlers - often preceded by land speculators. Washington could enter into treaties and issue proclamations, but he could not enforce them. In the south, Georgia ignored his treaty with the Creek nation, and in the north, the Ohio Country boiled with Indian uprisings that Washington had to put down. Ellis considers this "the singular failure" of Washington's first term.
 &
  Nevertheless, Washington's first term was a significant success. The author draws analogies between Washington's Fabian strategy during the Revolutionary War and his avoidance of conflicts over the court system and slavery that could have torn the fragile Union apart. Just as he had delegated control over a crucial campaign in the south to Nathanael Greene during the Revolution, he similarly delegated control over crucial financial reform to Alexander Hamilton - and was rewarded similarly by the brilliant performance of his lieutenants. His only serious defeat was over his Indian policy, but he did not regret the effort.
 &
  Serious illnesses had attacked him at the very beginning of his first term, draining the vitality from his aging body. While previous assertions of reluctance to take command were merely the role playing as a disguise for ambition necessary in that age, his wish to avoid having to serve a second term was undoubtedly sincere and strong. The topic most frequently found in his correspondence at this time concerned the details of the management of Mount Vernon. There, he could be in control in a manner that no President would ever be able to control the political currents in the nation's capital.
 &

Washington was indispensable because Hamilton and Jefferson had become rabid political rivals with radically differing visions for the country. Indeed, they could agree apparently on nothing other than Washington's indispensability.

  Washington thus ardently looked forward to retirement at the end of his first term, but was quickly convinced by Hamilton and Jefferson that he remained the indispensable man. He was indispensable because Hamilton and Jefferson had become rabid political rivals with radically differing visions for the country. Indeed, they could agree apparently on nothing other than Washington's indispensability.

  "The split between Jefferson and Hamilton was destined to foster the creation of the two-party system as a central feature in the American political universe. Though full-fledged parties, with national platforms, campaigns, and conventions, would not emerge until the 1830s, their embryonic origins first became visible during Washington's presidency. Over time it would eventually become clear that a two-party system was a major contribution to modern political science; for by forcing the wide spectrum of political opinion into two camps, it institutionalized the ongoing dialogue into an organized format that routinized dissent. In retrospect, the two-party system has come to be regarded as one of the most significant and enduring legacies of the founding generation. But what is seen as a great contribution was regarded by its creators as a great curse.

  There is no doubt that both sides within Washington's administration genuinely believed that the policies they favored were best for the nation and that the policies of the others were dangerous.

Washington, himself, became a target of shrill attacks asserting his monarchical ambitions. These attacks, Ellis tells us, stunned him.

  Thus, by the end of his first term, partisanship had reared its ugly but essential head. Political parties formed to contest for the presidency after Washington. Washington, himself, became a target of shrill attacks asserting his monarchical ambitions. These attacks, Ellis tells us, stunned him. Such attacks on his honor and reputation wounded him far more than the criticism he had to bear as Commander in Chief during the Revolution.
 &

Sectional rivalries had become so severe that only Washington could hold the nation together.

  The core of opposition arose in the south - especially Virginia - suddenly aware that slaveholding and agricultural interests could effectively be challenged by northern commercial interests and political movements. Jefferson and Madison led this faction. They shrewdly based their attacks against the Hamiltonian faction on its "consolidation" of power in the federal government - "an ominous second coming" of the royal court of bankers and stock jobbers.
 &
  Thus, a regional grievance was transformed into "a patriotic rallying cry." They even encouraged attacks on Washington for abandoning France. They thus began the formation of the Republican Party. 

  This, however, was the predecessor of today's Democratic Party. The modern Republican Party was formed in the 1850s.

  Washington proved immune to such arguments and above such assaults. His experience in the Revolution had convinced him of the necessity of a strong national government, and he readily dismissed the charges against Hamilton as clearly ludicrous. However, he also had the self confidence to keep Jefferson and Madison in his inner circle, working effectively with them on other matters. Philosophical differences were generally avoided when conducting cabinet business.
 &
  Jefferson and Madison, in turn, directed all their attacks against Hamilton as the satanic presence and true power behind the scenes in the administration of an aging Washington. Ellis asserts that these attacks were to be the source of subsequent evaluations of Washington as an aging increasingly detached President.
 &
  Ultimately, Jefferson himself informed Washington that sectional rivalries had become so severe that only Washington could hold the nation together. Washington allowed his candidacy to again be put forward - to again receive a unanimous electoral vote. This time, his inaugural address was just "two short paragraphs, wholly devoid of content, respectful but regretful in tone."
 &

  The second term began with a plethora of troubles outlined by Ellis. The Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania and widespread Indian wars were among the domestic troubles. The political split in Washington's cabinet and in the nation grew increasingly virulent, leading to increasing attacks in the press against Washington and his administration. Jefferson retired a year into the term.
 &

  War between England and revolutionary France was immediately recognized by Washington as a mortal threat to his fragile nation. Against the strident opposition of the Jefferson faction, and the conspiratorial efforts of Citizen GenÍt, the minister from France, Washington established a policy of strict neutrality. The widespread popularity of France and unpopularity of Britain was recognized as a political asset by the Republicans and was energetically inflamed - leading to further attacks on Washington.
 &
  Washington stood firm against these assaults. Becoming embroiled in this war would have been disastrous for the nation, and the expenses would have immediately ended popular support for the war effort.
 &
  The Whiskey Rebellion posed a direct threat to the new federal government. Washington raised a federal army and took the field with it - a precedent never thereafter followed by any sitting President. Hamilton, however, was the officer in charge of the force that marched into Pittsburgh. The rebellion quickly dissolved in the face of this show of force. Liberal amnesty terms for those who signed an oath of allegiance quieted the waters.
 &

  The Jay Treaty with Great Britain, however, posed the greatest challenge in the second term, and Washington met it head on.
 &
  The treaty required the removal of British troops that were still ensconced on the western frontier where they had been encouraging Indian resistance to the spreading settlements. The treaty also provided for arbitration of claims for compensation for American cargoes seized by the British blockading fleets. However, it also accepted "British economic and naval supremacy in language that gave American neutrality a British tilt." Britain was, after all, America's predominant trading partner.
 &
  By this widely unpopular concession, Washington avoided war with Great Britain for at least a couple of decades. This was his primary objective - in the event, precisely achieved.
 &
  These concessions loosed a firestorm of abuse at Jay, Hamilton, and Washington himself. Nevertheless, Washington prevailed - gaining acceptance of funding for the treaty by the narrowest of margins - an important victory for the new nation that Jefferson ruefully acknowledged only Washington could have achieved.
 &
  For the Jay Treaty, Washington had no option but to lead from the front. This exposed him as a target for vicious partisan attacks. That Jefferson was playing a leading role in the attacks made them all the more hurtful, and in 1796, all further correspondence between the two ceased. Ellis explains the significance of this episode.

  "The debate over the Jay Treaty exposed the major fault line running through the entire revolutionary era. On one side stood those who wished America's revolutionary energies to be harnessed to the larger purposes of nation building; on the other side stood those who interpreted that very process as a betrayal of the Revolution itself. Washington did not try to straddle that divide in the Jay Treaty debate, or delegate the front-line position in the battle to surrogates. Just as he had at Trenton and Princeton during the war, he took the lead. But what no British musket or cannon had been able to do on the military battlefield, the Republican press had managed to accomplish on the political one. Washington was wounded, struck in the spot he cared about most passionately, his reputation as the 'singular figure" who embodied the meaning of the American Revolution in its most elevated and transcendent form."

Stepping down:

 

 &

  And then, Washington stepped down. For the second time in his long career, he voluntarily relinquished the reigns of power, setting him apart and above all other revolutionary leaders - absolutely unique - (until Nelson Mandela, two centuries later, joined him on this lofty perch).  Instantly, all propaganda about his monarchal ambitions was revealed as malicious partisan lies.
 &

The Farewell Address was a masterpiece that has grown in influence with the passage of time. Its central themes were neutrality abroad and unity at home.

 

Washington emphasized that the nation must put aside sectional rivalries and unite behind a strong federal government.

  Washington published his "Farewell Address" in collaboration with Hamilton.  Examining the correspondence and the many drafts, Ellis concluded: "Hamilton was the draftsman who wrote most of the words, while Washington was the author whose ideas prevailed throughout."
 &
  In essence, the Farewell Address was an open letter to the American public, since it was never delivered as a speech. It was carried in newspapers throughout the nation.
 &
  The Farewell Address was a masterpiece that has grown in influence with the passage of time. Its central themes were neutrality abroad and unity at home.

  "All those rumors of creeping senility and fading mental powers would be forced to encounter the old commander in chief, still very much in charge. He was going out as he came in: dignified, defiant, and decisive; clear about what was primary, what peripheral; confident about where history was headed."

  Most important was his emphasis that the nation must put aside sectional rivalries and unite behind a strong federal government.

  "Here was the lesson Washington learned commanding the Continental army: American independence, if it were to endure, required a federal government capable of coercing the states to behave responsibly. This put him squarely at odds with the Republican argument that a sovereign national government violated the "spirit of '76." In the Farewell Address, Washington reiterated his conviction that the centralizing impulses of the American Revolution were not violations but fulfillments of its original ethos."

  Next in importance was his realist assertion that relations between nations could only be based on mutual interests. Trust and friendship were dangerous illusions. Here, too, he was in stark opposition to Jeffersonian and Republican ideology.

  "It followed that all treaties were merely temporary arrangements destined to be discarded once those interests shifted. In the context of his own time, this was a defense of the Jay Treaty, which repudiated the Franco-American alliance and aligned America's commercial interests with British markets as well as the protection of the all powerful British fleet."

  As long as the U.S. was small and weak, this meant avoiding "permanent alliances" that would entangle a fragile U.S. in the innumerable conflicts of the major European powers. A century later, of course, the U.S. was an emerging giant among nations, rendering this admonition obsolete. However, the realist principle about national interest is an "eternal principle intended to last forever."
 &

  Slavery was not mentioned in the Farewell Address. This was still the issue that was the greatest threat to the continuation of the Union.

  "His silence on the subject in the Farewell Address accurately reflected his judgment that debate over slavery must be postponed for at least a generation."

  Indian affairs were also not mentioned. However, Washington did publish an open letter to the Cherokee Nation committing the national government to the protection of their land rights. This commitment would be ruthlessly abandoned by Pres. Andrew Jackson three decades later (despite a Supreme Court ruling supporting Cherokee rights).
 &

  In his final address to Congress, Washington made several recommendations. The nation was in good shape and the British were evacuating their western posts. Only French raids on American shipping in the Caribbean darkened the horizon.
 &
  Presciently, Washington recommended establishment of a small navy for coastal defense and protection of American commerce from Islamic pirates in the Mediterranean. Also needed was a national military academy, legislation to encourage the nation's manufacturing sector, good pay for federal employees, and federal expenditures to encourage improvements in agricultural techniques.
 &
  Washington was leaving no doubts that he was a Hamiltonian favoring a strong role for the federal government. One persistent obsession, however, would not be fulfilled - the establishment of a national university in the nation's capital.
 &

Retirement:

 

 &

  Washington energetically threw himself into management of the Mount Vernon complex - thus totally contradicting scurrilous assertions of his declining mental and physical capabilities. However, the slavery issue was still irresolvable for him.
 &

  Meanwhile, the nation exploded in partisan rancor. The tides of popular favor swung wildly as first Jefferson and the Republicans were discomfited by French excesses and bribe seeking, and then the Adams administration stumbled in its response - the Alien and Sedition Acts.
 &
  Then, Washington - always favoring the Federalist cause - was drawn into the fray by a Hamilton subterfuge. Hamilton maneuvered to get Washington's support as a figurehead for Hamilton's secret ambitions to raise and lead a national army of imperial domination and conquest. Hamilton asserted to Washington and the public that the purpose of this force was to fend off a fancifully feared Napoleonic invasion.

  "[The] moment exposed the dangerous tendencies of Hamilton's genius once released from Washington's control."

  All at once, Washington's unwitting "complicity in the plot lent credibility to the Republican claim that the old patriarch was a rather dazed front man for the conspiratorial manipulations of an evil genius behind the curtain."
 &
  Ellis provides a well reasoned analysis of this one major strategic misstep coming at the close of Washington's long career. In the event, Pres. Adams got wind of the plotting and sucked the air out of its sails by sending a peace commission to Paris. This fatally undermined Adams' standing in the Federalist Party, doomed his chances for reelection, and was nevertheless thereafter considered by him as the crowning achievement of his presidency. He thus also rescued Washington from an acutely embarrassing blunder.
 &
  When the depths of the plotting were inadvertently revealed to Washington, he confessed he was "stricken dumb." He then established his final contribution to his list of presidential precedents: as an ex President, he would never again be drawn into the affairs of the current administration.

  "I shall trust to the Mariners whose duty is to Watch -- to steer it into a safe Port."

Slavery and the Will:

 

 &

  Of approximately 300 slaves on Mount Vernon, only 100 were fully employed. The rest were too young or too old, and Washington would not turn them out. Almost all the produce of Mount Vernon was dedicated to consumption on the premises, and the complex was usually run at a loss.
 &

  Washington was increasingly conscious of his need to untangle himself from his slave holdings.
 &
  A desire to free rather than sell
his slaves is indicated in his correspondence as early as 1794. However, he was thwarted by his inability to sell his vast western landholdings to raise sufficient earning capital, and the intermarriage of his slaves with the dower slaves that were not his to free. Of the 317 slaves at Mount Vernon, only 124 were wholly his.
 &
  There is no evidence of Martha's attitude on this matter. She burned volumes of their personal correspondence after Washington's death. Ellis reasonably speculates that she did not share his evolving attitudes. In any event, Washington continued to favor realism over idealism. He even made strenuous - but unsuccessful - efforts to reclaim two runaway household slaves.
 &

"He was, in fact, the only politically prominent member of the Virginia dynasty to act on Jefferson's famous words in the Declaration of Independence by freeing his slaves."

  His Will included a resolute passage that frees his slaves immediately after Martha's death. It is quoted by Ellis. The slaves were not to be disposed of in any other manner. The young were to be taught reading and other useful skills, and the old were to be cared for. "He was, in fact, the only politically prominent member of the Virginia dynasty to act on Jefferson's famous words in the Declaration of Independence by freeing his slaves."
 &
  Washington - always conscious of his public reputation in life - was taking care of it for posterity. His Will was another of Washington's magnificent exits.
 &

Washington's image has continued to serve his country by helping to bind the Union. The embellishments and myths, however, obscure the picture of the real man.

  Washington died on December 14, 1799. He died possessed of immense riches. However, this was predominantly in the form of his landholdings. He could undoubtedly plead being cash poor. He divided his estate fairly equally among 23 heirs - thus assuring that none received a personal fortune. His image has - ever since - continued to serve his country by helping to bind the Union. The embellishments and myths, however, obscure the picture of the real man.
 &

Ultimately, he was able to harness his passions, his ambition, and his ego into service for his country.

 

He saw the world as it was and rejected idealism.

  Ellis ventures some thoughts about the real man, derived in part from eulogies delivered by two men who knew him long and well - Henry Lee and Gouverneur Morris.
 &
  The picture is of great passions controlled by steely resolve, and great ambitions and strong ego driving him first to establish his own career and fortune and then to establish his secular image as the preeminent leader of his country. Ultimately, he was able to harness his passions, his ambition, and his ego into service for his country. (The ability to influence ambitious people in this way is one of the strengths of democratic systems.)
 &
  The picture includes a sharp mind "uncluttered with sophisticated preconceptions." He saw the world as it was and rejected idealism. He thus knew that the Articles of Confederation would fail, and that the French Revolution would lead to vast tragedy.

  "For Washington, the American Revolution was not about destroying political power, as it was for Jefferson, but rather seizing it and using it wisely. Ultimately, his life was all about power: facing it, taming it, channeling it, projecting it. His remarkably reliable judgment derived from his elemental understanding of how power worked in the world."

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  Copyright © 2005 Dan Blatt