His Excellency: George Washington
Joseph J. Ellis
A few months ago, I have no idea why, I decided it might be fun to read a biography of each American president, in order. I floated this idea a few times, and usually people laughed at me or said I would never get past the revolution.
But the project appeals to me. First of all, I don’t think I have a particularly admirable awareness of American history or politics, and this is a way to get a thorough schooling inAmerican history in a compelling way. Second of all, there are all these presidents! I probably couldn’t name more than 25-30 off the top of my head. And the role of the American president is so beguiling – so powerful and symbolic and influential, and yet so bogged down and defensive and working uphill – and this man can be George W. Bush one minute and Barack Obama the next. Crazy.
Eventually, I mentioned the idea to my friend Dave, who was immediately and ardently on board. He just graduated from law school and is kind of a political junkie, so he’s supplying all the context and enthusiasm. We waited until the end of the summer – until he had taken the bar and I had finished Infinite Jest – and dove into Washington after Labor Day.
We figure it will take four or five books before the project has any legitimacy. When I tell people I’m reading through all the presidents, they always ask me which one I’m on, and answering “Washington” doesn’t garner me a lot of respect. But we’re going to do it! Our goal is to finish before the 2012 election, which means we need to average a little less than a month for each president. Easy.
I did realize recently that I’m going to have to read through the entire American Revolution like, I don’t know, five times.
But Washington was great. I was surprised as how much vital information I didn’t know about him. Like where he grew up, and the fact that he didn’t have kids. This part, talking about when he was chosen to lead the Continental Army, made me laugh:
“Another short answer, subsequently offered by Adams as a joke, was that Washington was always selected by deliberative bodies to lead, whatever the cause, because he was always the tallest man in the room. Even as a joke, however, Adams was making a serious point that a veritable legion of his contemporaries made, especially upon first meeting Washington; namely, that he was physically majestic.”
John McCain can blame mass media if he wants, but it appears we have always been enraptured with leaders who look the part.
I also liked this part, about his post-presidential retirement at Mount Vernon.
“A day in the life of George Washington in retirement began at five o’clock with the rising of the sun: ‘If my hirelings are not in their places at that time, I send them messages of my sorrow for their indisposition.’”
Wake up calls! From George Washington!