A revisionist life of the Founding Father, motes and warts and all.
No stranger to scandal himself, Ellis (Founding Brothers, 2000, etc.) begins by addressing George Washington’s education in the school of hard knocks with tomahawks. Having lost his father early and having attained only a grade-school education, Washington was pressed into work on Virginia’s western frontier, “the far edge of civilization’s progress,” beyond which “anything that Europeans called civilization ceased to exist altogether.” Exploring the territory along the Ohio River apparently taught him a thing or two about Indian fighting, though, as Ellis notes, the documentary evidence for this period is scant; whatever the case, by the time he reached his early 20s, Washington was serving in the Virginia militia and found himself overseeing the first engagement of the French and Indian War—unhappily, a massacre of French soldiers attempting to surrender. Other debacles followed, after which Washington, by Ellis’s account, came both to disdain the British officer class and to believe that he himself could not be killed. Retiring from service, he returned to Virginia and married Martha Custis—even though, Ellis writes, he was in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. As a slaveholding plantation owner, he soon worked his way through much of Martha’s inherited wealth and took to borrowing money, which caught him “in the trap that was snaring other Virginia planters and that Thomas Jefferson, another victim, described as the chronic condition of indebtedness.” Ever litigious and ready to blame others, Washington attributed his economic woes to the misdoings of the British Empire in America, and a revolutionary was born. So, too, was the regal general who insisted on being called “His Excellency” and who “lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history,” but who also “surrounded himself with the most intellectually sophisticated collection of statesmen in American presidential history” and forged a republic.
“A modest-sized book about a massive historical subject,” Ellis calls it. Well done, too, though admirers of Washington may find in it more—or less—than they bargained for.