Demystifying George Washington

American Icons, People
on February 20, 2005

Although the nation annually celebrates the Feb. 22 birthday of George Washington, many Americans actually know very little about our first president, says Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has penned a new Washington biography.

Ellis’ latest effort, the best-selling His Excellency: George Washington, strips away the mythology and brings the aloof Founding Father alive by delving into his early years and revealing the contents of letters Washington wrote and received.

Ellis, who lives in Amherst, Mass. (pop. 34,874), spoke to American Profile about Washington.

Why is Washington still relevant today?

He is the most famous American figure about whom most ordinary American citizens know almost nothing. What they know most is wrong—like he chopped down a cherry tree and he had wooden teeth—and that gap needs to be closed. Coming to terms with Washington helps us understand what kind of political leadership we once had, the leadership we have now, what values seem to be central to leadership and what kind of foreign policy was planted in the seeds of the nation at its founding. We can understand where we are now in relation to that, and that gives us some perspective on such issues as terrorism and Iraq.

You can’t fly Washington in from the 18th century. If he were to land in the White House now, he would not know about weapons of mass destruction or Osama bin Laden. But you can immerse yourself in his time and see if there’s a conversation that is possible between then and now.

He is like the man in the moon: We know he is there, but he’s far away. He is the father figure and you don’t want to look into the father figure too much. We don’t want to learn something about him that will make him more imperfect. He is also responsible for this. He created space around himself that no one could get into and he wouldn’t let anybody get into, apart from his wife, Martha, and some very close friends during the war (against Britain).

Why do you describe him as “the Foundingest Father of all”?

He was the person who had stepped forward before the Declaration of Independence to risk everything. He presumed Mount Vernon (his home) would be burned to the ground after he accepted the commander-in-chief position. Without his judgment at these critical moments, there would be no such thing as the United States. While it was a collective process of ordinary Americans, elite Americans and the army, the one person without whom it couldn’t have worked is Washington.

He is the greatest leader in American history. If we are looking for role models in American leadership these days, and I think we are, he is numero uno.

Looking through our 21st-century eyes, what do we see of Washington?

There are two great founding moments in American history—when we declare our independence and fight a war, and when we declare our nationhood. Washington is the central figure in both of those moments. He was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, presiding president of the Constitutional Convention and the first president of the United States.

The United States was not really a united country or nation; it was a work in progress. There was only one singular person who embodied the nation, and people couldn’t agree on anything else—what the American Revolution meant and what the future was for this united nation. They all agreed on one thing: whatever it was, Washington embodied it.

In Iraq now, the different factions lack that kind of singular leader, in part because they didn’t initiate the struggle to overthrow Saddam Hussein; we did. Therefore, there is not a person who can embody the revolution there. Washington did it and he did it in a way that is truly distinctive. In other revolutions, whether it was French, Chinese or Russian, the singular figure that emerged essentially created a totalitarian society. Washington walked away from power and said that no single person could be above the law. This was a different kind of nation, a republic in which all leaders, no matter how indispensable, are in the end dispensable, and that included him. The only other person who has done that is (South African leader) Nelson Mandela.