• U.S.

Books: He Cannot Tell a Lie

3 minute read
Richard Lacayo

Three years ago, Joseph J. Ellis, one of the most widely read American historians, ran into a career crisis of his own strange devising. Just months after his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation won the Pulitzer Prize and planted itself for a long run on the best-seller list, it emerged that Ellis, who spent the Vietnam War years doing graduate work at Yale and teaching history at West Point, had been offering his students at Mount Holyoke College wholly invented accounts of his days as a platoon leader in Vietnam. After his tall tales were exposed in the Boston Globe, Ellis was suspended without pay for a year and compelled to relinquish his endowed chair.

But even after the story broke, his book continued to sell briskly. And why not? No one ever accused him of falsifying his scholarship, and his probing biographies remain some of the most psychologically penetrating portraits of the Founding Fathers that we have. His supple new book, His Excellency: George Washington (Knopf; 320 pages), is another in that line, full of subtle inroads into the man Ellis calls the “most notorious model of self-control in all of American history, the original marble man.”

The Washington Ellis gives us is not the customary figure operating serenely above the fray but a man constantly seeking to govern his own passions. Ironically, telling Washington’s story truthfully requires Ellis to occasionally cast doubt on the great man’s honesty. Washington could lie when he needed to–for instance, by misrepresenting for posterity his role in the disastrous engagement at Fort Necessity during the French and Indian War. And throughout his career, he feigned a lack of ambition as cover for a relentless impulse to move upward in the world.

Washington had no more than a grade-school education, but he had an early grasp of issues that would be crucial to America’s future, such as westward expansion and the vexing matter of slavery. He eventually concluded that slavery must be abolished, though his own slaves were freed only after his death. He also understood precisely what his role in the new nation should be. Washington emerged from the War of Independence as a kind of god. Like Caesar before him and Napoleon after, he might easily have parlayed military glory into imperial power. But he performed his greatest service to his country by refusing to yield to that temptation. At the end of his second Administration, he turned down a third term, thereby establishing an enduring example of limited presidential tenure.

Washington was willing to refuse a crown, but he was exasperated by Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s aversion to federal power. His experience during the war with Britain, when a rudderless Continental Congress left his army chronically short of supplies, convinced him of the need for a government strong enough to pursue national purposes. But as Ellis sees it, Washington’s views were also “projections onto the national screen of the need for the same kind of controlling authority he had orchestrated within his own personality.” The Father of His Country had first to prevail as master of himself. –By Richard Lacayo

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