08/19/05 - washington's self-denial

In today's excerpt - Joseph Ellis discusses the five historic acts of self-denial that defined George Washington, including the denial of his love for Sally Fairfax in order to secure a fortune through his marriage to Martha Custis. The assertion is that Washington had a volcanic temperment, which he was able to harness as few men have in the interest of his ultimate achievements:

"Of course, Morris' main point was that the passions that stirred Washington's soul required the creation of control mechanisms that subsequently served the nation so well when Washington voluntarily stepped away from power, first in 1783, and then again in 1796. Morris was saying that his psychological struggle for self control prepared Washington to perform the crowning political achievement of his career. What we might call Washington's internal muscularity is, of course, impossible to see, though Morris implied that it was just as impressive as his marvelous physique. We can only describe its visible manifestations. And on that score there were five self-denying decisions that stand out: the rejection of his love for Sally Fairfax; the adoption of a Fabian [defensive] strategy against the British army in 1777, despite his own aggressive instincts; the symbolic surrender of his sword at Annapolis; the refusal to serve a third term as president; and the dismemberment of his estate [including the freeing of a portion of his slaves] in his will. While Morris' formulation focuses attention on what Washington was prepared to give up in each instance, we should also notice that all the surrenders paved the way to larger acquisitions: a great fortune; victory in the war; and secular immortality. All the disciplined denials were also occasions to catch the next wave forward."


Joseph J. Ellis


His Excellency George Washington


Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2004 by Joseph J. Ellis


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