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His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph…
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His Excellency: George Washington (2004)

by Joseph J. Ellis

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This is a really well-done biography of George Washington. It suffers from the central defect of all Washington biographies - the complete destruction of his private correspondence by his wife, Martha, who wanted his privacy respected. She got her wish, but at the expense of history.

Washington was a very quiet, reserved character who was unreservedly admired and respected by his contemporaries. He had his critics, and made his mistakes, but overall, he really deserves the plaudits that were heaped on him. In particular, his decision to step away from public life, both after winning the Revolutionary War and after serving two terms as president, are almost unique in world history, and served the nascent US well. Ellis shows how he was shaped by his childhood and his early experiences of frontier warfare, and how his own sense of honor was the driving force of his life.

It was very interesting to read the degree to which the financial structure of the planter class of Virginia and the south was based on slavery and also unsustainable. Ellis sketches how the large families were often driven into debt and bankruptcy due to this, and shows how fear of this very real fate marked the political defense of slavery by southern politicians, particularly Thomas Jefferson. Washington, perhaps because he was not really part of this class (his social origins were a step lower), recognized early on that this was a trap and worked to diversify his plantations. He came to believe that slavery was wrong, and struggled to free his own slaves, but financial and legal realities made it difficult. Ellis speculates that Martha, wealthy in her own right, and through estates and slaves still legally belonging to her first husband's family (although she had lifetime use of them), may have opposed Washington in this regard, which would help explain why his will freed the slaves on her eventual death.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote teckelvik | Jul 23, 2013 |
It's a difficult task to contain in a relatively small volume the story of a man involved in so many defining events in American history. The author does it by concentrating on the character of a man. You can't really write Washington's bio without going into the historical details, but author strikes a fine balance between biographical narrative and historical background. It is really not so much American history book, but rather portrait of a man. ( )
  everfresh1 | Feb 8, 2013 |
Ellis is a good historian, but he has an annoying tendency to speculate on motives even when he admits there is no evidential basis for it, as part of what he apparently takes to be a charming conversational style. ( )
  AshRyan | Jan 29, 2012 |
Ellis took on a huge job: distill the essence of Washington the man into a short volume for those who want to know more without having to wade through one of the multi-volume biographies. And, at least in my humble amateur historian point of view, he succeeded. I feel like a have a very personal understanding of this larger than life figure. What did I miss? I wanted to know more about his relationship with Martha and his children but Ellis has little evidence since Martha destroyed all their correspondence. Or was he simply more interested in the political world that Washington both helped to create but then watched become increasingly more partisan? After all, that probably is the interesting historical story and I found myself yet again musing, as I do whenever I read American history or biography, about how little has changed in terms of American politics. ( )
  witchyrichy | Oct 29, 2011 |
What an interesting man. At times he is a very frustrating character but at others times you understand why. His stand was always somewhere in the middle even though he kept very strong ideas himself. He was always very careful not to be an extremist on any view or policy. He was the ultimate politician with heart who hated confrontation. Not being able to fully know the man behind the myth is what makes him a legend. This book explains why we are not able to know more about him as well as his strained relationship with Jefferson. The two men could not be more opposite in everything. Fantastic biographical book. Also recommended would be 1776, it goes more in depth as to his decisions or lack thereof on the battlefield during the revolutionary war. I unfortunately read 1776 first and then this one, i would recommend it the other way around. ( )
  adribabe | Aug 28, 2011 |
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My own relationship with George Washington began early. (Preface: The Man in the Moon)
History first noticed George Washington in 1753, as a daring and resourceful twenty-one-year-old messenger sent on a dangerous mission into the American wilderness.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0739451537, Paperback)

softcover book

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:56 -0400)

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Drawing from the newly catalogued Washington papers at the University of Virginia, the author paints a full portrait of Washington's life and career in the context of eighteenth-century America, richly detailing his private life and illustrating the ways in which it influenced his public persona.… (more)

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