Monday, September 6, 2010

Joseph Ellis's "His Excellency: George Washington" (2004)

I am just finishing His Excellency. This is a very good book.

I like Ellis's writing style, which I would describe as "medium academic" - he has some fairly complex analyses but does not take them to the "high academic discourse" level that becomes difficult to read (and which can drain some of the fun from historical stories).

A major theme of the book is assessing Washington's ambition, in particular whether he was truly as reluctant to lead as he (at times) alleged. On this question, Ellis straddles the fence, concluding that Washington did enjoy his primacy (both military and political) but was also motivated by the democratic ideal and the good of the republic. 

An interesting personal point is that Washington had no biological children (I had forgotten this). This led him to take on a number of "surrogate sons," most notably Alexander Hamilton, in whom he invested considerable psychological energy; more generally, he viewed his troops during the Revolution as a family, and this probably contributed to his genuine care for their well-being (and willingness to actually lead them into battle).

470.  Which other famous generals in history put themselves at bodily risk, repeatedly, during battle? Did Napoleon do so?  What about the various Civil War generals, including Lee and Grant?

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I particularly enjoyed Ellis's examination of Washington's "Fabian strategy" during the Revolutionary War, in which he essentially bided his time and let the British Army (which had obvious re-supply problems) wear itself down:
"Also called a Fabian strategy after the Roman general Fabius Cunctator, who defeated the Carthaginians by withdrawing whenever his army's fate was at risk, it was a shift in thinking that did not come naturally to Washington ... Washington did not believe that he was weak, and he thought of the Continental army as a projection of himself. He regarded battle as a summons to display one's strength and courage; avoiding battle was akin to dishonorable beahvior, like refusing to move forward in the face of musket and cannon fire ... Nevertheless, the battle of New York had demonstrated tht the Continental army could not compete on equal terms with British regulars on the conventional battlefield."
Washington's decision to follow the Fabian, "wait-it-out" approach -- even though it caused some to perceive him as weak -- makes me wonder whether Obama is doing the same thing on a number of his policy preferences: is he strategically "wearing down" both the hard left and the hard right (for instance, on his Afghanistan policy and on domestic energy issues) so that he can ultimately steer the "silent center" his way?

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Today's Post reports that Obama will not support a "payroll tax holiday."  I am unclear why the Administration does not want to go this route, given that (1) they cannot get Congressional support for a second stimulus and (2) economists on the left and right seem to think a payroll tax break would provide an incentive for business expansion.

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