An excellent foundation

If public school systems were genuinely interested in improving American history departments that increasingly seem unable to teach students the difference between the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Bull Run, while simultaneously diminishing or ignoring the achievements and aims of our forefathers, a great place to start would be to install a new biography of George Washington as a mandatory foundational text.

His Excellency, by historian Joseph J. Ellis (Knopf, $26.95), is an accessible, informative, and essential work detailing the life and career of Washington. Not only does Ellis deftly utilize the newly catalogued Washington papers at the University of Virginia to bring the 'deadest white male' to vivid life, while telling the complex and fascinating story of the birth of this nation. It is a story replete with the difficult relationship between the white man and Indians, slavery, the economics of colonial America, and anti—war sentiment after 1776. Ellis shatters the hazy perception that the result of the Revolutionary War was a forgone conclusion. The book also sheds light on the difficulties of being the first President, and the protocol Washington set that resonates today.

Too often, history texts used in the schools are, by their very nature, forced to condense a great deal of information into readable prose. More often than not, important context and necessary background is left on the cutting room floor. Many students are left with the impression that the Revolutionary War began when a bunch of angry colonists threw some tea into Boston Harbor, Paul Revere yelled about the redcoats, Washington suddenly appeared on the scene to cross the Delaware River, and the English left the colonies, where dead white men created a new country in which they brutalized black slaves for the fun of it all. Using His Excellency as a main text (and perhaps relegating traditional textbooks to permanent supplemental status) would go a long way toward giving students a better picture of what happened, how it came to pass, and why.

Ellis details Washington's seminal experiences in the field during the French—Indian War, and explains the battle for the frontier and supremacy on the continent. Washington's experiences as a commander during this period, especially the blunders he saw that led to the massacre at Ft. Necessity, forged certain military principles that would serve him well when fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. The story of Washington's quest for military leadership and how he attained it is also detailed. Ellis does a masterful job of elegantly explaining how the credit system administered by British merchants and companies worked, and under which wealthy planters fell into strangling debt and total dependence on England. Washington's own experiences with this system demonstrate the economic factors at work which planted the seeds of rebellion among the colonies, especially in the vital colony of Virginia.

At war against the British, Washington is not portrayed as the genius at arms of myth, and his tactical blunders and miscalculations are clearly explained and accounted for, as are his triumphs over adversity, most memorably a piercing description of the brutal days at Valley Forge. Alongside Washington's story are profiles of just who was on the front fighting the British, who was really a patriot, how difficult it was for Washington to sustain a regular army, and how the ebb and flow of volunteer colonial regiments affected the outcome of particular battles and subsequent strategy.

Ellis also deftly explains the political difficulties of the Revolutionaries, and the plentiful anti—war sentiment throughout America in a time of uncertainty and peril. Washington is treated as a real man facing real problems, a good man, but no saint, his performance impressive but not flawless. The executive's determination to avoid another monarchy was triumphantly realized, but his ambivalence regarding the question of slavery came up short on the ideals of liberty upon which that self—government was won. 

Unlike many biographies of monumental figures, His Excellency is relatively short — only 275 pages of text and seven chapters lasting roughly 30—40 pages apiece in length — yet an enterprising teacher will recognize that everything needed to introduce students to the military, economic, and social aspects of colonial America and beyond are in this book. Washington's experiences with and against Indian warriors can spawn discussion and reports about the indigenous peoples of North America. Tracing the path of Revolutionary battles might give kids a better understanding as to why Brooklyn is significant for more than just producing the Beastie Boys. Our democratic republic is seen in its infancy, and students will benefit from a more detailed examination of the difficulties Washington and his contemporaries faced when beginning this new experiment. In short, this book is a vast freeway with literally hundreds of exits to explore.

Of course, teaching history as a parade of 'great men' has been out of style for some time now. The reigning sensibility among the bien pensants of academia prefers to identify abstract forces ending in '...ism,' and when telling stories of actual lives, emphasizing women, minorities, the poor and the oppressed. The adoption of textbooks is highly politicized and bureaucratized. So there is little hope that students serving time in the public schools will see His Excellency as anyting more than a book report opportunity. Home schools and private schools are much more flexible and offer some promise to use Ellis's work to its fullest potential. But learning, even for youngsters, does not solely take place in school. George Washington is a figure worthy of study by everyone, and this entertaining and engaging book makes his life, as the story of America's foundation, a gratifying as well as instructive example.

Ellis reminds us that the singular story of Washington is the story of America. Even if prep or junior high students who are exposed to this book are not moved to further study history, if their imaginations are not sparked by the curious coincidences and seemingly innocuous events that set the course of a nation and a world, they will at least come away from Ellis's work with a rudimentary knowledge of George Washington, and the story behind the legend. That story is worth remembering — and worth teaching our children. 

Matt May can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his website is mattymay.blogspot.com

If public school systems were genuinely interested in improving American history departments that increasingly seem unable to teach students the difference between the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Bull Run, while simultaneously diminishing or ignoring the achievements and aims of our forefathers, a great place to start would be to install a new biography of George Washington as a mandatory foundational text.

His Excellency, by historian Joseph J. Ellis (Knopf, $26.95), is an accessible, informative, and essential work detailing the life and career of Washington. Not only does Ellis deftly utilize the newly catalogued Washington papers at the University of Virginia to bring the 'deadest white male' to vivid life, while telling the complex and fascinating story of the birth of this nation. It is a story replete with the difficult relationship between the white man and Indians, slavery, the economics of colonial America, and anti—war sentiment after 1776. Ellis shatters the hazy perception that the result of the Revolutionary War was a forgone conclusion. The book also sheds light on the difficulties of being the first President, and the protocol Washington set that resonates today.

Too often, history texts used in the schools are, by their very nature, forced to condense a great deal of information into readable prose. More often than not, important context and necessary background is left on the cutting room floor. Many students are left with the impression that the Revolutionary War began when a bunch of angry colonists threw some tea into Boston Harbor, Paul Revere yelled about the redcoats, Washington suddenly appeared on the scene to cross the Delaware River, and the English left the colonies, where dead white men created a new country in which they brutalized black slaves for the fun of it all. Using His Excellency as a main text (and perhaps relegating traditional textbooks to permanent supplemental status) would go a long way toward giving students a better picture of what happened, how it came to pass, and why.

Ellis details Washington's seminal experiences in the field during the French—Indian War, and explains the battle for the frontier and supremacy on the continent. Washington's experiences as a commander during this period, especially the blunders he saw that led to the massacre at Ft. Necessity, forged certain military principles that would serve him well when fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. The story of Washington's quest for military leadership and how he attained it is also detailed. Ellis does a masterful job of elegantly explaining how the credit system administered by British merchants and companies worked, and under which wealthy planters fell into strangling debt and total dependence on England. Washington's own experiences with this system demonstrate the economic factors at work which planted the seeds of rebellion among the colonies, especially in the vital colony of Virginia.

At war against the British, Washington is not portrayed as the genius at arms of myth, and his tactical blunders and miscalculations are clearly explained and accounted for, as are his triumphs over adversity, most memorably a piercing description of the brutal days at Valley Forge. Alongside Washington's story are profiles of just who was on the front fighting the British, who was really a patriot, how difficult it was for Washington to sustain a regular army, and how the ebb and flow of volunteer colonial regiments affected the outcome of particular battles and subsequent strategy.

Ellis also deftly explains the political difficulties of the Revolutionaries, and the plentiful anti—war sentiment throughout America in a time of uncertainty and peril. Washington is treated as a real man facing real problems, a good man, but no saint, his performance impressive but not flawless. The executive's determination to avoid another monarchy was triumphantly realized, but his ambivalence regarding the question of slavery came up short on the ideals of liberty upon which that self—government was won. 

Unlike many biographies of monumental figures, His Excellency is relatively short — only 275 pages of text and seven chapters lasting roughly 30—40 pages apiece in length — yet an enterprising teacher will recognize that everything needed to introduce students to the military, economic, and social aspects of colonial America and beyond are in this book. Washington's experiences with and against Indian warriors can spawn discussion and reports about the indigenous peoples of North America. Tracing the path of Revolutionary battles might give kids a better understanding as to why Brooklyn is significant for more than just producing the Beastie Boys. Our democratic republic is seen in its infancy, and students will benefit from a more detailed examination of the difficulties Washington and his contemporaries faced when beginning this new experiment. In short, this book is a vast freeway with literally hundreds of exits to explore.

Of course, teaching history as a parade of 'great men' has been out of style for some time now. The reigning sensibility among the bien pensants of academia prefers to identify abstract forces ending in '...ism,' and when telling stories of actual lives, emphasizing women, minorities, the poor and the oppressed. The adoption of textbooks is highly politicized and bureaucratized. So there is little hope that students serving time in the public schools will see His Excellency as anyting more than a book report opportunity. Home schools and private schools are much more flexible and offer some promise to use Ellis's work to its fullest potential. But learning, even for youngsters, does not solely take place in school. George Washington is a figure worthy of study by everyone, and this entertaining and engaging book makes his life, as the story of America's foundation, a gratifying as well as instructive example.

Ellis reminds us that the singular story of Washington is the story of America. Even if prep or junior high students who are exposed to this book are not moved to further study history, if their imaginations are not sparked by the curious coincidences and seemingly innocuous events that set the course of a nation and a world, they will at least come away from Ellis's work with a rudimentary knowledge of George Washington, and the story behind the legend. That story is worth remembering — and worth teaching our children. 

Matt May can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his website is mattymay.blogspot.com