Like many of us, historian Joseph Ellis long considered George Washington a distant, almost unapproachable icon, "aloof and silent, like the man in the moon." Then Ellis began research for a chapter about Washington's farewell address in Founding Brothers, his brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller about America's revolutionary generation. And he discovered sides of Washington—the man, not the monument we've made of him—that surprised him.
"There's a fundamentally different sensibility at work here," Ellis says, comparing Washington to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during a call to his home in Amherst, Massachusetts. "It's harder to write about because Adams and Jefferson give you the words themselves, whereas Washington's basic convictions were shaped by experience and action. He is less introspective. He doesn't give you the same language."
What Washington does pass down to us is voluminous, mostly official correspondence, not especially revealing daily diaries and documents from his life as a self-made member of the Virginia gentry, leader in the fight for American independence and first president of the United States. Alas, Martha Washington ordered their personal correspondence destroyed, closing off the main avenue to a more intimate look at Washington the man. The Washington Papers, as the remaining the assemblage is called, are now nearly completely edited and annotated, and Ellis uses these papers to extraordinarily good effect as the backbone of his highly readable, often provocative, human-scale book that is intended to be, he writes in his preface, "a fresh portrait focused tightly on Washington's character."
Ellis fleshes out His Excellency by dipping judiciously into an ocean of new scholarship on the American Revolution, the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, slavery and colonial and early American history in general. The resulting portrait seems to surprise even Ellis himself.
"I was most surprised with how ambitious Washington was," Ellis says, sounding almost bemused. "I didn't expect him to be as gargantuan an ego. We think of Benjamin Franklin as the ultimate self-made man in early American history, but Washington was equivalently self-made. That gave him incredible drive. He came from virtually nowhere and made himself into something, often on the basis of sheer physical presence and physicality. Adams said later that whenever they met to decide who was going to lead them, they always picked Washington because he was always the tallest man in the room. Well, he was not just the tallest man in the room; he was the most ambitious man in the room. And amongst a crew of people like Jefferson and Adams and Madison and especially Hamilton, to say that Washington was the most ambitious is to say something."
Washington also had his eye on how history would judge him, which helped make him the precedent-setting master of restraint that we hail even today. "Power makes us uncomfortable," Ellis notes. "But in the end, Washington is the one person you can trust with it, and he proves that he is worthy of that trust by surrendering power."
Part of Ellis' art in His Excellency lies in his ability to dramatize for the reader how the outcomes of historical events that now seem fated in fact teetered precariously on the edge of disaster: the Revolutionary War, for example, could easily have been lost had Washington not been able to learn hard lessons from the mistakes of his early, instinctively aggressive strategy; the very idea of an American nation could have vanished with the wind had Washington not thrown his presence and prestige behind the Constitutional Convention. Even the book's title makes a nodding reference to the fact that some revolutionaries expected Washington to be ruler for life. It was all new ground, and Washington's unique character—molded essentially, Ellis argues, by experiences in the Revolutionary War – set the precedents that shape our hopes and expectations for America to this day.
The other part of Ellis' art is, quite simply, that he writes extraordinarily well, and by hand. "I'm an old-fashioned writer in the sense that I'm technologically incompetent," Ellis says. "To me there's a connection between the muscular movement of the hand and the cognitive process itself."
Ellis partly credits teaching history to undergraduates at Mount Holyoke College with helping "purge my writing of scholarly jargon . . . and making me find ways to articulate complicated ideas in accessible language. I think for most historians the research is two-thirds of the work and the writing another third; for me it's the opposite."
Ellis works at home in a large upstairs office, usually surrounded by his Jack Russell terrier, a cat and a golden retriever. Obviously, his office has no computer, and Ellis says he's never figured out how to use research assistants, so he does all his own research. Sometimes his 13-year-old son Alex (Ellis also has two grown sons from a previous marriage) will slip into the quiet of his office to do homework and leave behind notes for his father, reading "Dad, go to it! My college depends on your success."
"In the same way that there's got to be a seamless connection between the way you write and what you're trying to express," Ellis says, "there needs to be an interconnection between the writing, the teaching, the family, the dogs, the kids—the rhythms of life."
Then, reflecting on the book he has so recently completed, Ellis says, "I hope His Excellency gives you a sense of the character of this person both as a public figure and as a human being. Washington's was an elemental personality. It was not Jeffersonian in its intricacies and contradictions, but the judgments he made in several key decisions—about the war, about the Constitution, about the presidency—all ended up being right. That's impressive. And it was not an accident."