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Founding Stories

Joseph J. Ellis


     ... historian. Joseph Ellis' book Founding Brothers won the Pulitzer Prize, his American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won the National Book Award. With His Excellency: George Washington, Dr. Ellis continues to make early American history and the people who made it relevant to the present and future. With a Ph.D. from Yale, this former Virginian went to the College of William & Mary, has been on the faculty of Mt. Holyoke and a resident of Massachusetts for many years.


George Washington was the losing-est general in history to win a war. It took him seven and a half years and an army of three or four thousand rag-tag soldiers, says historian and biographer Joseph Ellis. Those soldiers were indentured servants, recently emancipated slaves, and newly arrived immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, willing to suffer year after year, with no food, no pay and no pensions. (See also "The Discontented" ). Today, Dr. Ellis believes, the same George Washington who led an insurgency would understand just how difficult it is to defeat one.

Washington is an American icon, but he is practically unknown even to the well-educated. How can Ben Franklin have been wiser than Washington, Thomas Jefferson more intellectually sophisticated, John Adams better read, Hamilton more brilliant, Madison more politically savvy, and all of them acknowledge Washington as their superior? Dr. Ellis says one reason is that Washington was physically imposing, an "action-hero" type. He also was the one among them with real world experience -- Adams goes to Harvard, Jefferson goes to William & Mary and Washington goes to war. And it was Washington who got the big things right, was steady and self-controlled, Dr. Ellis believes, the one who foresaw a vast economic and political future for the new nation.

The places where Washington's leadership fell short turned out to be the two great failures of the American Revolution -- the genocide and slavery on which the nation was built. Dr. Ellis was surprised at how much of Washington's presidency he spent on his (ultimately failed) plan to guarantee Native Americans their land. And while Washington's objection to slavery was initially economic -- he saw it as inefficient and uncompetitive, turning his plantation into a southern outpost of the Northern economy -- it was the moral imperative that led him to free his own slaves.

Going back to the late 18th century which he studies is like going to a lost land, Dr. Ellis says. It's not just pre-Darwinian, it's pre-democratic. The Founders didn't conceive of themselves as starting a democracy, Dr. Ellis says, they were creating a republic. The responsibility of leadership was to divine the public interest, regardless of how popular that public interest might be at the time. Leaders had to be able to feel the future in their bones and the only "poll" that mattered was posterity -- whether or not the leaders get it right in the long run. (Imagine a similar strategy among modern politicians.)

While Dr. Ellis is beguiled by the greatest collection of political talent in American history, he is also fascinated that the institutions and values on which America rests were created in a chaotic, improvised fashion, less like a symphony orchestra than like the improvisation of jazz musicians (see Cornel West). What do Dr. Ellis' studies tell him? That America is better served by the example of what its Founders created and its resulting economic might than by brute force. And that the nation George Washington helped create through insurgency should remember just how difficult an insurgency is to defeat.



[This Program was recorded December 9, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Historian Joseph Ellis tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how George Washington can be the most prominent figure in American history and virtually unknown. Dr. Ellis explains the utility of being an historian of imperfections.  

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:24

Conversation 2


George Washington was a man of passion, rather like a present-day action hero, Dr. Ellis says. The biographer of all of America's Founders, Dr. Ellis says John Adams went to Harvard, Thomas Jefferson went to William & Mary and George Washington went to war. Dr. Ellis outlines elemental lessons Washington learned and his immunity both to small pox and the central illusion of the age. Washington is somewhat dangerous, Dr. Ellis says, convinced that the secret of success in America's founding era was the checks and balances in the leadership class as well as in the Constitution. He outlines what is essentially now a lost world -- both pre-Darwinian and pre-democratic.

Conversation 1 RealAudio13:25

Conversation 3

Franklin is wiser, Jefferson more intellectually sophisticated, Adams better read, Hamilton more brilliant and James Madison more politically acute, Dr. Ellis says, but they all acknowledge Washington to be their superior. Washington's physique contributed, he says, along with getting the big things right -- especially leading an insurgency that defeated the greatest army and navy in the world. Dr. Ellis explains the importance of understanding these individuals and explains Washington's insistence on a standing army. Dr. Ellis describes the roots of Washington as a nationalist and explains Washington's debt to the Continental Army soldiers -- indentured servants, former slaves and recent immigrants from Ireland and Scotland.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:32

Conversation 4

Washington had 2 goals in the war for Independence: the eastern half of the North American continent and the foundation of an eventual world power, Dr. Ellis says. Washington's perspective on Native Americans and on slavery are considered, along with the Virginia dynasty's influence from sovereignty to the dramatic expansion of slavery into the South. Dr. Ellis considers Washington's perspective on Virginia as the southern outpost of a Northern economy, not the northern outpost of a Southern economy. The reality that the United States is founded on genocide and slavery points to the two great failures of the founding generation, Dr. Ellis says.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:37

 Conversation 5

The great jurist John Marshall tried to enforce Washington's convictions about Native American rights, but they fell victim to greed, corruption at the State level and the Constitutional argument made by the Republican Party that states were sovereign, Dr. Ellis says. He expands, then narrates the unattractive facts of blinding racism on the part of the Founding Fathers and those who followed. Honoring the magic words of democracy that Thomas Jefferson wrote, Dr. Ellis also speaks to Jefferson's hypocrisy and shows how his philosophy was essentially libertarian.

Conversation 1 RealAudio8:16

Conversation 6

Dr. Ellis celebrates the ideas generated by the greatest collection of political talent in American history. America's power must come from its ideals and economic power in the world, Dr. Ellis concludes, certain that George Washington, who led an insurgency, would understand how difficult it is to defeat one.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:42


Gabrielle Brooks at Random House did her typical sterling job of supporting Dr. Ellis and us as we prepared for this program. We admire her and thank her.

Related Links:

His Excellency: George Washington is published by Alfred A. Knopf as is the hardcover of Founding Brothers. It along with Dr. Ellis' other books are available in paperback from Vintage Books, a Division of Random House.

David McCullough tells John Adams' story in his book titled ... John Adams.

Annette Gordon-Reed's prize-winning story of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings adds the additional complexity of women and slavery to America's "origin myth."

Nancy Nahra and Williard Sterne Randall tell the stories of Forgotten Americans, some of the people now effectively lost to history but who helped shape the nation America has become.

In The Cousins' Wars, Kevin Phillips connects the English Civil War, the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War.

David Reynolds writes about the unfulfiilled promises of the American Declaration of Independence ("... all men are created equal ...") and its Constitution ("... establish Justice, ... and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity") in John Brown, Abolitionist.

Susan Jacoby presents a now unfamiliar view of American History in Freethinkers:  A History of American Secularism.

Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for his fictional account of blacks who owned slaves: The Known World.

Edward Ball tells the story of the very personal interrelationships between owners and slaves in Slaves in the Family.

Sir Harold Evans account of the development of American industry, They Made America and The American Century show how George Washington's dream of an American empire came to life.

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