PW: After your Pulitzer-winning biography of Thomas Jefferson, what led you to take on George Washington in His Excellency?
Joseph Ellis: Between the two, I had done Founding Brothers, a chapter of which was on Washington's farewell address, so I was forced to read the Washington papers to an extent that I hadn't before and by dipping into the papers, I realized that Washington's character was more interesting, more fully revealed, than I'd ever seen it. There's no question that Washington is the "founding-est" father of them all. If you're interested in trying to assess political leadership, it seems to me he's the ultimate subject.
Despite his public pose of dignified detachment, you reveal that Washington was highly ambitious.
He's a real self-made man, as much as Franklin was, but the kind of self he makes is more primal, and he develops his convictions by experience, rather than by reading or schooling. Adams goes to Harvard, I've said, Jefferson goes to William & Mary, and Washington goes to war. The iconic, aloof character isn't who he was; he was a powerful and forceful figure whose ambition to excel eventually got linked to a glorious cause in the American Revolution. But before that, he was anxious to become a leader in the British army or the Virginia planter class.
And for all his heroic image, his military track record really wasn't all that great.
He lost more battles than any successful general in history. In any traditional conflict with the British army, he was at a distinct disadvantage, because he didn't have the traditional troops they had and he had never commanded anything larger than a regiment before. In small battles like Princeton, where he had visual control over the battlefield, he was okay, but once the battlefield gets bigger, he doesn't know how to handle it. His tactical plans are usually too complex and depend on everything working perfectly, which seldom happens in battle.
Have you decided what you're going to write about next?
I'm lying fallow for a while, hanging out and waiting for an epiphany. I'm reading David Sedaris's new book and I just got through Richard Clarke's book. I'm just reading widely and letting my mind rest for a little bit. I've had people press me to do a couple different things, and I think I might do another collection of essays rather than focus on a single person. I've done Adams, Jefferson and Washington now, and Ron Chernow's new book on Hamilton is wonderful, so he certainly doesn't need to be done again.
Do you ever see one of these other founding fathers books and say to yourself, "Why didn't I think of that?"
Instead of viewing them as competition, each time one of these books appears and is successful, it enlarges the readership for all of us. I don't agree with everything Chernow has to say about Hamilton, but instead of viewing him as competitive with the Washington book, I think it will only enhance that book's audience. We complement each other. I just think it's a little miracle, all these books on the founding era in the last four or five years. And this isn't celebratory history, either, it's about complicated, even flawed figures, even though they're unquestionably the greatest group of political leaders we've ever had. It goes to show there's a market for serious history from people who can write in a way that's accessible.