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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

His Excellency

Every Christmas, my dh gives me several non-fiction books. His Excellency by Joseph J Ellis was last year's. I should have read it sooner BUT it was put in a bookcase when we arrived back from the Christmas holidays. I only rediscovered it a few days ago. It makes a welcome relief from the ultra depressing Mao.
His Excellency
is a biography of George Washington, one of the more inaccessible heroes of the American revolution. Part of the problem is his almost mythic status and the fact that he knew his writings would be preserved at an early stage in the American Revolution, and so was very cadgy about revealing his personal feelings. All his private letters to his wife were burnt.
Elllis is a marvelous biographer who won the Pulitzer for The Founding Brothers.
Despite the problems, and Washington was very self-contained, Ellis manages to give a very interesting portrait of a man who not only influenced the shaping of the US but also the modern day world.
Washington is the only quasi-king to voluntarily give up power at the end of a revolution. Once the British had surrendered at Yorktown, he said farewell to his troops and went home to Mt Vernon. He saw himself as the American Cincinnati. His thinking was heavily influenced by the Roman Republic -- although he did not have the same difficulty with the word *empire* that we do today.
His views of how America should become a nation were very different than Jefferson's. Jefferson paid a lot of lip service to the equality of man. Washington believed in deference. On the question of slavery, Jefferson wrote a lot but in the end freed few.
After Washington became aware of the slavery problem, Washington looked for ways to get rid of his slaves. Part of the reason for this had to do with economics, but partly on humanitarian grounds. After the American Revolution, Washington wanted to sell his slaves in family groups, but when this proved impractical, he maintained the slave family, despite having transferred to a type of agriculture that did not require slave labour. At his death, all his slaves were freed. He was a product of his times but he still remains the only slave-holding founding father, to do so. His vision was for Virginia to become a Southern outpost of the North -- a bit more like Pennsylvania rather than a northern outpost of the South. If this had happened and VA stayed with the North, it is difficult to imagine the American Civil War happening.
Washington's army -- the Continental Army was the first racially integrated army in US history. The next one did not happen until after the Korean War.
When confronted with an epidemic of smallpox, he instituted one of the first mass inoculation programmes in US history.
I could go on and on. I thought I knew Washington and the period but have been pleasantly surprised.
In this present day with the mess in Iraq, I do think his observations that the nationhood is only fired in the crucible of despair bears some thought. He was convinced that catastrophe had to hit a nation before it would be willing to come up with a workable constitution. It is worthwhile remembering that the Articles of confederation (the US's first constitution did not work and that Shay's rebellion was one of the catalysts for the Constitution as it stands today)
actually in today's climate, I doubt such a document would be produced. The delegates were only supposed to amend and tinkered with the Articles, not throw them out. Each side would have been leaking their POV to the papers and compromise would prove impossible.
What today is seen as a great triumph, Washington felt was a failure. Would that all failures were like that.
Before dismissing Washington as the deadest of dead white males, it is helpful to understand what he was truly about and why he is a hero. First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen. The book should be read by anyone interested in the period.

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