In his second inaugural address, President Bush, speaking about human liberty, announced that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." The president heralded a confluence of interests and ideals that is both synergistic and unique. Synergistic because the ideal of spreading freedom ennobles our interest in self-protection, an interest that in turn grounds the ideal in reality. And unique because rarely in American history have needs and aspirations completely overlapped.
One such instance was the Revolutionary period when George Washington, whose birthday we celebrated on Tuesday, meshed his abiding faith in the importance of enlightened self-interest with the ideals of a young nation engaged in a fervent and successful bid for independence.
John Ellis' magnificent new biography, His Excellency: George Washington (Knopf, 2004), a lean, 275-page assessment of Washington's achievements and character, brightly elucidates our understanding of the quintessential American hero. At root, as Ellis notes in his preface, the biography is an exercise in avoiding the two extremes that mark many analyses of Washington: deification and vilification. Neither viewing our first president as an heroic icon nor dismissing him as a dead white male advances serious inquiry.
Instead, Ellis' approach involves taking a hatchet to famous myths (like the cherry tree or Washington's immunity from the barbs of partisan politics) while not shying away from his subject's shortcomings (such as his dogged adherence to a military strategy ill-matched to the Continental Army's strengths, his likely sterility, and his penny-pinching). At the same time, Ellis places Washington in the context of his time, explaining but not justifying his conflicted approach to slavery. In so doing, Ellis produces a serious history of Washington, the human being, from which we mere mortals, more than two hundred years later, can adduce important lessons.
Arguably the most essential ingredient in the witches' brew that was Washington's political philosophy was his deep belief in the role of selfish incentive. For instance, in discussing his outrage at Parliament's decisions regarding the great continental West -- with which Washington developed something of an obsession -- he asked, rhetorically: "What Inducements have Men to explore uninhibited Wilds but the prospect of getting good Lands? Would any Man waste his time, expose his Fortune, nay life, in search of this if he was to share" it with the undeserving? Ellis sums up this trait as an "instinctive aversion to sentimentalism and all moralistic brands of idealism."
The importance of incentive and self-interest permeated Washington's management of his own business affairs. Unlike his peers in the Virginian aristocracy with their genteel -- some might say neglectful -- approach to personal finances, Washington was unafraid to vindicate his own interests, as when he sued several families squatting on his land in the Ohio territory, seeking their eviction. In Ellis's words, Washington's victory in court "did nothing to embellish his reputation for soaring majestically above his own private interests." Washington, in short, deeply distrusted any appeal to a higher ethic that wasn't moored in some form of human need.
Yet both ideals and interests became fortuitously aligned during the run-up to, and the prosecution of, the Revolutionary War, an alignment personified by Washington's own relationship with the people he commanded in war. As Ellis evocatively describes it, "the character of the man and the character of the nation congealed and grew together during an extended moment of eight years."
This alignment initially sprouted from Washington's personal frustrations at what might anachronistically be called the British superpower's economic hegemony over the colonies. He saw nothing but exploitation in the so-called "consignment system" of the English mercantile class whereby Virginia planters entrusted their highly volatile tobacco crop to British merchants who in turn furnished expensive European consumer goods.
Incidentally, Washington came to realize the ramifications of his own indebtedness to British mercantile houses at a time when, in 1765, the Stamp Act came to symbolize the economic thrall in which the Empire generally held the colonies. After abandoning tobacco planting and using his seat in Virginia's House of Burgesses to boycott various English imports, he concluded that "the Measures which [the British] Administration hath for sometime been, and now are, most violently pursuing, are repugnant to every principle of natural justice."
Washington thus began to see not only the theoretical injustice evident in the lack of American independence but also the material damage wrought by the relationship. This overlap of interests and ideals propelled Washington to the very forefront of the Continental Army where he oversaw the protracted but ultimately successful effort to slip the British yoke. In another context, His Excellency himself attributed the unlikely American victory to a "concatenation of causes," or the unmistakable connection between what the colonies and their soldiers needed and aspired to do. In effect, when British tyranny became overwhelming in day-to-day life, not just in the abstract, the young nation's only option was victory.
As the nation matured, instances of such clear alignment of interests and ideals have arisen only infrequently, and never without controversy. Even our engagement in World War II and the Cold War, when fascism and communism threatened not only freedom in the abstract but the actual American version as well, provoked serious dissent, generally on the ground that our interests were insufficiently at risk to warrant expending our blood and treasure.
The current war against militant Islam, known more commonly as the War on Terror, is another such instance. President Bush has staked his legacy on the overlap between the challenges the jihadists have posed to the Muslim world and the threats they have imposed upon ours. Predictably, Bush's bold vision has spawned resistance in some precincts of the Right, which question the link between building civil society in Bangladesh and defending the homeland. More surprisingly, the Bush doctrine has raised the hackles of the liberal Left where one might have expected applause for the president's efforts to address "root causes."
But regardless of one's view of the accuracy of Bush's alignment argument -- and the debate it has spawned has thus far generally been well-informed -- one cannot deny that he felt compelled to make it. The element of interest separates Bush's approach from that of the liberal internationalists just as its idealist tendencies distinguish it from realism; in fact, historian Niall Ferguson recently referred to Bush as "the world's first idealist-realist." Put differently, what Charles Krauthammer has elegantly characterized as "democratic realism," or the solemn American obligation to spread liberty only where it matters most to American interests, is a 21st century extension of what might be called the Washington doctrine.
And as Ellis observes, contrary to the claims of 20th century isolationists, this doctrine, as articulated in Washington's famous "Farewell Address," does not require America inherently to shrink from global involvement. Far from denigrating all alliances, Washington, at a time when the aftermath of the French Revolution and a volatile American relationship with Britain posed serious difficulties to the new nation, warned his successors to "steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign world." (emphasis added) Rather than endorsing withdrawal from international affairs, Washington welcomed a supple foreign policy grounded in the pursuit of America's national interest. In Ellis's words, the Washington doctrine was a "vision of international relations formed from experience rather than reading, confirmed by early encounters with hardship and imminent death, rooted in a relentlessly realistic view of human nature."
His Excellency is not without its flaws. Its brevity, and Ellis' frequent recourse to phrases like "scholars agree" and "we now know", render the work more a survey of Washington's life than an in-depth examination of the important debates surrounding it. Ellis particularly skimps on Washington's philosophical transformation from "strenuous squire," tending his vines and fig trees, to steadfast commander and opponent of British tyranny.
But the book is nevertheless a landmark work, not least because of Ellis's efforts to humanize the hero. As John Adams observed of his predecessor, "[n]ow we can allow a certain Citizen to be wise, virtuous, and good, without thinking him a Deity or a saviour." By bringing Washington down from the Pantheon, the author has made him relevant to contemporary Americans. Given our first president's wisdom about the interplay of interests and ideals, Ellis's labors could hardly have come at a more appropriate moment.
Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, taught in Harvard's government department from 2001-2003.