In preparation for this year’s President’s Day post, and in celebration of George Washington’s birthday, I decided to expand my knowledge of and reflect on the first president of the United States. To that end, I read His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis. This book was intriguing because the author delved into more than just historical facts of the events surrounding the Revolutionary War and Washington’s role in shaping America’s political system. Ellis revealed how the events of the time influenced Washington, while also elaborating on how Washington’s personality, ego, and personal goals often affected the events themselves.
The author did not shy away from presenting evidence of Washington’s personal quirks and shortcomings. I found this interesting as Washington is often portrayed as faultless. Certainly, it’s no secret that Washington was not perfect, but oftentimes we skim past any negatives in order to paint a rosy glow of simpler times with more ethical, moral, or seemingly ideal leaders. Of course, it’s worth noting that the reverse also occurs, as we focus all attention on a leader’s significant failings and ignore any evidence of positive qualities or contributions in our haste to dismiss the offending individual. It seems as if we feel the need to categorize leaders as “good” or “evil,” rather than reconcile the truth everyone slides somewhere on a scale rather than fitting into a particular category.
Looking closer at Washington as an example of this desire to oversimplify our historical leaders, he possessed both far-sighted and exemplary perspectives as well as viewpoints that were unacceptable. For example, he firmly believed in treating Native Americans as sovereign nations and worked to establish treaties with many tribes. Washington believed it was crucial to acknowledge and protect Indian land rights as an imperative aspect of the ideals that the newly formed American government stood for, even as an influx of settlers expanded into the west seeking land. In direct contrast to this viewpoint on human rights and liberty, slavery continued despite urgent pleas from several of his peers to bring about emancipation. Even after Washington himself acknowledged that slavery contradicted America’s vision for freedom, he continued to own slaves until they were freed upon his death, per his will. This is just one example of two divergent viewpoints contained within one person.
Ellis continued this theme of conveying how complicated and, at times contradictory, Washington was both as a person and as a leader. In addition to antithetical policy decisions, there were numerous examples throughout the book of Washington’s personality characteristics and how his public and private personas were often at odds. For example, his interactions and correspondences confirmed he had a humble character and quiet nature; however, despite his reserved personality, Washington apparently also had a bit of an ego, evidenced by his comfort in being referred to as “His Excellency,” and enjoyed an all-but royal portrayal.
Reading about the complexity and nuance of Washington reminded me how we all hold a little bit of “both” within ourselves, despite a seeming desire to label everyone else in more decisive terms. We crave purity in our leaders, no compromises and all-but-total agreement in perspective. If there is a hint of disagreement or perceived wrongdoing, we often push to oust the offending individual and do our best to forget their contributions. This is true for historical as well as current figures. As Ellis wrote, “For most of American history our response to Washington…has been trapped within the emotional pattern…oscillating in a swoonish swing between idolization and evisceration…the arc moves from…fabrications about a saintly lad who could not tell a lie to dismissive verdicts about the deadest, whitest male in American history. This hero/villain image is, in fact, the same portrait, which has a front and back side that we rotate regularly.” This rotating tendency is also true of today’s leaders, as we try our best to categorize them into clear compartments.
One of the main take-aways I had after reading Ellis’s book is that having a better understanding of leaders often requires a nuanced perspective and an ability to reconcile the truth that everyone is capable of change, growth, and improvement. Washington was an impressive leader, no doubt, and possessed enviable leadership qualities and clairvoyance. However, learning about Washington’s past mistakes on tactical decisions, lack of urgency to tackle the issue of slavery, and misrepresentations of reality in order to save face and protect his reputation made me realize there is more to his humanity than stoic demeanor and prescient leadership. He was very much both a flawed individual who made mistakes and also a wise, unprecedented, selfless leader. And while it is appropriate that we hold people, especially leaders, to a high standard, it is also necessary to accept that we’re all human. We all make mistakes, say the wrong things, make the wrong decisions – sometimes, we even cling to the wrong convictions. Hopefully most, if not all, of us learn from past mistakes and transgressions and grow into better people, including those in leadership positions.
Our country’s history is filled with shameful policies and decisions made by individuals who possessed both positive and flawed qualities. Our history is also filled with change, growth, and improvement led by individuals who possessed both positive and flawed qualities. As I deepen my understanding and knowledge of America’s history and past leadership, my understanding of the continuous pattern of “both” has become more evident. Maybe it’s strange, but I find a reassuring comfort learning about the good and the not-so-good, and how wrongdoing, mistakes, changes and corrections have occurred time and again throughout history. As we contemplate the past, and consider our future, let’s not forget to incorporate a little bit of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, and those in leadership positions, we’re all only human after all.
Wendi, her husband, and their two kids live in Minnesota and are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.
*photo credit: personal photo*