The American Revolution was the most consequential event in modern history. Although it has been largely forgotten today, the patriots from the 13 rebellious colonies launched a political movement that went against the prevailing forces of their age. They championed the primacy of individual rights, republican government, and national self-determination in opposition to a world dominated by kings and empires. Ever since the United States won its freedom from British imperial rule, countries throughout the world have sought to emulate the American example.
As Joseph Ellis points out in his masterful biography, His Excellency, one man has come to symbolize the historic achievements of the War for Independence: George Washington. Mr. Ellis emphasizes that his work is an attempt to restore Washington’s reputation in the face of dominant academic trends, which view him as “complicitous in creating a nation that was imperialistic, racist, elitist, and patriarchal.” The author refuses to accept such nonsense. Elegantly written and superbly researched, Mr. Ellis’ study places Washington in his proper historical context. It reveals the pivotal role the Virginia planter played in defeating the British and ensuring the republic’s survival during its infancy.
Washington’s greatest leadership qualities were his sober judgment and outstanding character. It was this formidable combination that made him stand out among his peers–even alongside such giants as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Although these three Founding Fathers were more intelligent, better educated, and politically shrewder, they could not rival Washington’s unique virtue and self-control.
Mr. Ellis argues that it was Washington’s strength of character that enabled him to lead the poorly trained and lightly equipped Continental army to victory. Despite the fact that he “lost more battles than he won,” Washington was able to learn from his mistakes, inspire his troops, and bog British forces down in a protracted guerrilla war.
Following considerable public pressure (and pleas), he agreed to run and get elected as the country’s first president. This provided much-needed prestige and stability to the fledgling republic. During his presidency from 1789 until 1797, Washington helped to secure America’s transition from a loose confederation of states into a truly united nation. He was also pivotal in establishing a functional constitutional government based on the rule of law. Ultimately, Washington’s tenure laid the foundations for the world’s greatest democracy.
His philosophical outlook was closer to the Federalists, such as Hamilton and John Adams, than to leading Republicans like Jefferson and Madison. Washington disagreed with the Jeffersonian doctrine of states rights and its defense of a predominantly rural society. Rather, he was a nationalist, who believed in an effective federal government, a National Bank and policies that would promote manufacturing.
In foreign affairs, Washington was determined to keep the United States neutral in any European conflict, even at the cost of vicious personal attacks. Following the bloody French Revolution, war broke out between France and England. Washington came under intense pressure from the Jeffersonian press to support the French. Jefferson and his allies were sympathetic to France. They were rabidly anti-British, and shared many of the Revolution’s anti-monarchical, anti-aristocratic goals. Yet Washington refused to let the United States get dragged into another Anglo-American war. He correctly cautioned that the young republic was not prepared either militarily or economically for another showdown with Britain. The result was the Jay Treaty. It was the central accomplishment of his second term. Although highly unpopular at the time, it provided the necessary geopolitical breathing space that ensured the nation’s survival.
The United States is deeply blessed to have been born with such an outstanding generation of leaders as the Founding Fathers. For all of their greatness, however, Washington was perhaps the finest. He was many things–a first-rank statesman and general, a devout husband, Christian and family man–but, above all, he was a brave patriot, who always put his country’s needs ahead of his own. He has set the standard by which subsequent presidents have been judged. He was, and always will be, the father of our nation.