As I've grown older, I've really come to recognize how inadequate history classes in school are. I'm not trying to be snarky; it's just that history is so "thick" and filled with so many details there is absolutely no way a person can learn much more than the basics of names, dates, and places. That's one reason I like to tackle some historical nonfiction once in a while to go along with my favored diet of historical fiction. My latest was Joseph Ellis' biography of George Washington, His Excellency.
Shortly after beginning this book, I realized I knew very little about George Washington. Sure, I knew he was the commander in chief for the Continental Army and the first constitutional president of the United States. I'd heard the story about how he thwarted the mutiny of the Newburgh Conspiracy by using his spectacles and a sentimental reference to his advancing age. But I didn't have much of an understanding of the amazing human being that was behind all those accomplishments. While Ellis' biography isn't as focused on George Washington the human being as say, The Unexpected George Washingtion: His Private Life by Harlow Giles Unger, Ellis does give some analysis of Washington's psychology. (I borrowed both of these books from a friend and while I'd like to read the Unger book, it took me 2 1/2 months - YES - to read the Ellis book. I'm ready to get back to some fiction! And I want to return the books to the friend. Maybe I'll get to Unger some time in the future.)
I'm not going to go into everything I found interesting about Washington's life (although I had no idea he was a smallpox survivor and how that played a strategic role in the American Revolution). To keep this post short and sweet, I'll just focus on two things that gave me new respect for Washington: his planned solution to the problem of frontier settlement and Indian rights to the land, and his determination to somehow, eventually free his slaves.
Probably because I am working on a story which is centered around the conflict over land between the Cherokee and white settlers, I paid special attention to the section of the book that talked about Washington's plans as president to deal with the Indians. Ellis points out Washington firmly believed the nation's future lay in expanding into the interior of the continent, which meant there had to be some policy for dealing with the peoples who were already there. Unlike many officials (especially Andrew Jackson later), Washington respected the Indians as "familiar and formidable adversaries fighting for their own independence; in effect, behaving pretty much as he would do in their place." That view led him to come up with a policy of creating Indian "homelands" that would house the tribes as foreign nations with which the United States would interact just as they would with the nations of Europe. Washington was apparently opposed to confiscation of Indian lands, which he believed would "stain the character of the nation." Unfortunately, early on, the state of Georgia ignored Washington's Treaty of New York with the Creek Nation and sold more than 15 million acres that would have been the Creek homeland to a land speculating company. As Ellis pointed out, "Eventually Washington was forced to acknowledge his vision...could not be enforced." He may have had a magnanimous attitude toward Native Americans, but not enough people shared his view - or too many were too greedy for land to care.
I also found it interesting to follow Ellis' discussion of how Washington gradually moved from oblivious slave owner (oblivious to the rights of slaves, that is) to a man who freed his slaves in his will. Ellis spends considerable time discussing the development of Washington's moral stance on slavery; although Washington came to see slavery as in contrast with the democratic principles he fought for in the revolution, he was still constrained by his vision of economic security. Part of the problem was that he didn't have full control of all the slaves; more than half of his slaves actually belonged to the dowry that came with Martha on their marriage and he couldn't free them without paying their value to the estate (which he obviously wasn't willing to do). Part of the problem was also that Washington felt strongly the new nation couldn't survive the political battles that would break out if he as president made moves to eliminate slavery. Ellis notes how complicated the slavery question was for Washington, who had a strong commitment to avoid breaking up slave families by selling slaves and who continued to support all the slaves even when it didn't work economically for Mount Vernon. I suppose we could condemn Washington's position on slavery by saying he waited until he was dead and would no longer need their services to give his slaves their freedom. However, I look at it this way - Washington was the only one of the slave-owning Founding Fathers who actually did anything about slavery, even if it came after his death. And his will didn't simply throw the slaves as free blacks out into the world; Washington allotted funds to provide care for the older or sick slaves for the remainder of their lives, and he called for the younger slaves to be taught to read and to do some kind of trade before being freed completely at age 25. And he was serious about it; his will included the following statement: "see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place without evasion, neglect or delay."
Even though it took me a long time to read the book, it was not because the book was boring or poorly-written. I thought it hit a good balance between giving an overview of the many significant events of Washington's life and of the motivations and personality of the man who lived those events. I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad to have more flesh put on the paper cutout figure of Washington that I had from studying American history in school.