What better topic to discuss with our NDP dads than the Founding Fathers? On February 21st, one day shy of George Washington’s 286th birthday, I had the pleasure of hosting the inaugural meeting of the NDP Dads History Book Club. We discussed Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis’s (no relation, but one can dream) biography of George Washington, His Excellency.
There is no topic I’d rather cover than the Founding Era and what a fantastic group of folks with which to discuss it. After a delicious, historically authentic dinner of pulled pork and coleslaw prepared by the wonderful Jen Caine, we dug into the book with gusto. We grappled with Washington the man over the course of our two and a half hour discussion, a discussion that could have definitely gone on for several more hours. The conversation was lively, humorous, and valuable—I hope—for all involved.
The goal of Ellis’s book is to bring Washington down (or up?) to a human level and allow us to see him, warts and all. From an early age, we are taught to revere Washington, and rightfully so. This reverence, however, has tended to elevate him to a superhuman, godlike status. This cheats us out of knowing the human behind the marble, and what an interesting human he was. Washington was a restless and ambitious youth, full of bravado and sensitive, often offended by perceived slights. He was a bit of a romantic, as is evidenced by his rather amorous letters to his best friend’s wife (!), Sally Fairfax. Over time, Washington was able to develop the characteristics that would make him a good leader. As a young man, however, the Washington we know was still in the distant future. The more staid and stoic man with whom we are more familiar belies his underlying notorious temper, his loving relationship with his wife, Martha, his skill as a dancer, and his evolving views on slavery.
These lesser-known aspects of the more human Washington certainly don’t detract from his legacy as perhaps some may fear. Instead, they make him more relatable, more possible to emulate. Because he did the same “human stuff” we all do, perhaps attaining his level of achievement doesn’t seem so impossible. This is an important lesson for our students, and all Americans, as it makes such herculean accomplishments seem within reach, rather than just the exclusive and expected outcome of the lives of super-heroes.
At our next meeting in May, we will be discussing Gordon Wood’s latest, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This book deftly explores these very famous “frenemies” in a way that allows the reader to see that political squabbles amongst friends can create quite the bumpy ride. In our current political climate, I imagine this theme is rather relatable, as family Thanksgiving dinners across this great land are increasingly stuffed with the often contentious turkey talk of politics. You may not see eye-to-eye with Uncle Frank. How can we disagree with Uncle Frank completely, yet still walk away from the holiday dinner table with our love and respect for Uncle Frank intact? This was an issue that plagued Jefferson and Adams and caused a decades-long rift in their friendship. The emphasis, again, is not on any supernatural quality these men are alleged to have possessed, but their human side, a side that is vastly more interesting and allows us a much deeper understanding of what made them tick. Fascinating!
Needless to say, I’m counting down the days and already thinking about the third book we’ll tackle! We hope to see you there!
-Blog Post by Mr. Mike Ellis, 2016-2017 Life Guard Teacher Fellow and faculty member in the NDP Social Studies Department