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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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"Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior." (pg xiv) And in this "modest-sized book about a massive historical subject," Joseph Ellis looks at why Washington was so highly regarded, both by his contemporaries and by history.

Ellis astutely points out that many others (such as Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro) were pivotal in orchestrating successful revolutions but only Washington declined to assume power in a military dictatorship (pg 139). And perhaps Washington's greatest trait was understanding that stepping aside would enhance the way he was viewed by posterity far greater than simply assuming power. He was always ambitious, looking for ways to integrate himself into Virginia society as a younger man, but he also knew when to exercise restraint and keep himself above the fray.

As the key figure of the American Revolution he kept up the struggle even when all odds were against him - flagging support among the populace, poor condition of the Continental Army, lack of support from Congress, the supremacy of British strategy and control of the seas, French reluctance to provide assistance. And yet such experience taught him the importance of a strong federal government and guided his role as President of the new nation. There were no prior examples to draw from or precedent to follow, and although his own lack of a formal education was a constant embarrassment to him, he intuitively knew how to utilize the strengths of others and manage the competing ambitions of those around him in setting the nation on a path to stability.

Ellis hasn't exactly written a biography in the classic sense, although he does chronicle Washington's life, but it's enhanced by a deep character study of this important man. And few are as adept at bringing history's characters to life in such an insightful way and putting the reader into their shoes. It was in strong contrast to John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington. Where Ferling looks at a events with a critical eye enhanced with 200 years of historical hindsight, Ellis sees beyond the failings to the motivations and greater social customs of the day and makes the history personal in a way no one else does. Although the book was a little slow starting it was so packed with valuable insight that it merits a close reading. I highly recommend it. ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
"Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior." (pg xiv) And in this "modest-sized book about a massive historical subject," Joseph Ellis looks at why Washington was so highly regarded, both by his contemporaries and by history.

Ellis astutely points out that many others (such as Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro) were pivotal in orchestrating successful revolutions but only Washington declined to assume power in a military dictatorship (pg 139). And perhaps Washington's greatest trait was understanding that stepping aside would enhance the way he was viewed by posterity far greater than simply assuming power. He was always ambitious, looking for ways to integrate himself into Virginia society as a younger man, but he also knew when to exercise restraint and keep himself above the fray.

As the key figure of the American Revolution he kept up the struggle even when all odds were against him - flagging support among the populace, poor condition of the Continental Army, lack of support from Congress, the supremacy of British strategy and control of the seas, French reluctance to provide assistance. And yet such experience taught him the importance of a strong federal government and guided his role as President of the new nation. There were no prior examples to draw from or precedent to follow, and although his own lack of a formal education was a constant embarrassment to him, he intuitively knew how to utilize the strengths of others and manage the competing ambitions of those around him in setting the nation on a path to stability.

Ellis hasn't exactly written a biography in the classic sense, although he does chronicle Washington's life, but it's enhanced by a deep character study of this important man. And few are as adept at bringing history's characters to life in such an insightful way and putting the reader into their shoes. It was in strong contrast to John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington. Where Ferling looks at a events with a critical eye enhanced with 200 years of historical hindsight, Ellis sees beyond the failings to the motivations and greater social customs of the day and makes the history personal in a way no one else does. Although the book was a little slow starting it was so packed with valuable insight that it merits a close reading. I highly recommend it. ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
"Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior." (pg xiv) And in this "modest-sized book about a massive historical subject," Joseph Ellis looks at why Washington was so highly regarded, both by his contemporaries and by history.

Ellis astutely points out that many others (such as Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro) were pivotal in orchestrating successful revolutions but only Washington declined to assume power in a military dictatorship (pg 139). And perhaps Washington's greatest trait was understanding that stepping aside would enhance the way he was viewed by posterity far greater than simply assuming power. He was always ambitious, looking for ways to integrate himself into Virginia society as a younger man, but he also knew when to exercise restraint and keep himself above the fray.

As the key figure of the American Revolution he kept up the struggle even when all odds were against him - flagging support among the populace, poor condition of the Continental Army, lack of support from Congress, the supremacy of British strategy and control of the seas, French reluctance to provide assistance. And yet such experience taught him the importance of a strong federal government and guided his role as President of the new nation. There were no prior examples to draw from or precedent to follow, and although his own lack of a formal education was a constant embarrassment to him, he intuitively knew how to utilize the strengths of others and manage the competing ambitions of those around him in setting the nation on a path to stability.

Ellis hasn't exactly written a biography in the classic sense, although he does chronicle Washington's life, but it's enhanced by a deep character study of this important man. And few are as adept at bringing history's characters to life in such an insightful way and putting the reader into their shoes. It was in strong contrast to John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington. Where Ferling looks at a events with a critical eye enhanced with 200 years of historical hindsight, Ellis sees beyond the failings to the motivations and greater social customs of the day and makes the history personal in a way no one else does. Although the book was a little slow starting it was so packed with valuable insight that it merits a close reading. I highly recommend it. ( )
1 vote J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
Forever remembered as the first president of the United States, George Washington is often a man that is greatly misunderstood. I love how the author chose to title this book with the title that Washington absolutely despised. The more I know about this man, the more I am intrigued. ( )
  mgeorge2755 | May 14, 2014 |
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 |
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My own relationship with George Washington began early. (Preface: The Man in the Moon)
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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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