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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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Surprised by what I did not know about Washington. what a man! ( )
  mgriel | Jan 18, 2016 |
This short biography of Washington presents a thoughtful portrayal of his accomplishments and, most important, his character. It gives an excellent of the currents and ideas of the times in the late colonial and early independence years. The deep respect held by Washington’s contemporaries for him, and the reverence accorded him throughout the 19th century has faded somewhat in our modern era, not so much by revisionist history but by the passage of time. There are nearly countless biographical works on Washington, but this one, made enjoyable by Ellis’s fluid and clear writing style, is as good a book to gain insights into the man as any preceding it.

Washington like all consequential figures was a man of contrasts. He was highly ambitious and desired advancement and greater esteem in the patrician society of mid-18th century Virginia. His family, while in the upper class of the Virginia planters, was not of the top rank. Washington knew that he would need to gain attention if his status among the elites was to rise. While he was intelligent and literate he was not on the lofty intellectual plane of his contemporaries like Jefferson, Randolph, Mason and the much younger Madison and Hamilton. Washington knew that he must succeed in three dimensions if he was to secure his social rank: economically, militarily and through a strength of character that garnered the respect of others.

Like others of his class the mark of wealth was land; Washington never ceased in his goal of obtaining additional land. Washington recognized that the key to expanding land holdings lay over the mountains beyond the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. Much of his time in his younger years was devoted to surveying the undeveloped land across the Alleghenies and acquiring ownership or rights to possess this land. While the Virginia aristocracy glanced largely toward England and Europe, Washington knew that the future of America lay westward. Washington’s economic position advanced substantially when he married the widowed Martha Custis who possessed one of the greatest estates in the Tidewater. His management of the estate was the principal preoccupation of his adult years.

Washington gained his reputation in the military arena from his service in the French and Indian War. He was called on to lead expeditions against the French in present day northwestern Pennsylvania. His participation in several engagements was not unalloyed success, but he did gain widespread regard as a military leader, such that he was the clear choice to head the fight against the British at the onset of the War for Independence. One must conclude that his record in the Revolutionary War was mixed at best and, especially in the early years, he was saved from his headstrong offensive strategy only by the lack of aggressive follow through by his British counterparts. As the war progressed Washington adopted a more Fabian strategy of preserving his forces to fight another day; he seemed to understand that the American cause could be won by the two major advantages the country held: space and time. The entry of the French into the fight for independence was, of course, a major factor in the ultimate success of the Americans.

Washington’s third asset in securing his place of esteem in the nation was his character. In the most primal sense his physical bearing brought the respect of others. He was tall and large for his time and many who saw him were awed by his physicality. Beyond this advantage was his demeanor, his image of being above the common fray.

Washington had a keen desire to secure his place in history. He was a fervent patriot and had a vivid idea of what should be done for the thirteen states to become a nation. His reputation among his countrymen was so great that he could have easily become a Napoleon-like emperor, a new monarch for the new country. His revulsion for monarchy and his respect for the republican values emerging from the liberty movement made the choice of securing personal power impossible for him to envisage. In some sense what Washington did not do became as significant a part of his legacy as what he did. That is, he repeatedly stepped down from power at the times he might have perpetuated it. He resigned his commission after the war. He responded to the call of country twice thereafter when he accepted the chair of the constitutional convention and to become the first president of the United States. His determination to refuse a third term (and what could, if he had lived, been a lifetime sinecure) set the precedent for time-limited executive leadership ever after. His unswerving resistance to seeking and holding power was of great value in the political tone of the new nation, but was also seen by Washington as the most fruitful way to ensure his place in history.

Ellis’s book provides interesting insights into two aspects of Washington’s life and service. His time as president saw the emergence of bitter political rivalries that created the party system. The intrigues of the arch enemies Jefferson and Hamilton are especially interesting; one must conclude that Jefferson’s disloyalty to the president is quite reprehensible. The second issue is Washington’s worries about slavery. His and Martha’s estate had hundreds of slaves and Washington concluded that slavery should not continue both because it was an economic burden on the plantation and because of personal qualms about the morality of slavery. He also sensed the inevitability that slavery would be a source of discord among the sections of the nation. He equivocated on the practicality of emancipating his slaves and the problem was compounded because many of the slaves were owned by Martha and hence not his to free. This issue would, of course, fester for the 60 years following Washington’s death in late 1799.
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  stevesmits | Jan 17, 2016 |
Few names conjure up a vision of American history like that of George Washington. His personage is so well known that his personal history has beef fraught with myth and folklore. Who hasn't heard the story of a young George and the cherry tree? In His Excellency biographer and historian Joseph J. Ellis attempts to shed the myth and tell us the truth about the most famous man in American history.

I found this book to be very readable, it provided all the facts without become dry, but nor did it ever stray to the narrative as has become popular recently. The emphasis was very clearly placed on his time fighting in first The French and Indian War and second as the Commander in Chief if the American forces throughout the Revolution. We are provided copious details of his life as both a private and public man during this time, complete with excerpts from his personal communications. Another strong point of the biography was the details regarding his evolving opinions regarding slavery from a man who had no concerns about the institution to a man who granted them their freedom following his and his wife's deaths.

Where I felt the book was lacking was in regards to his two terms as President following the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the establishment of the federal government under the Constitution. I felt more attention could have been played to his accomplishments and failures during this time. I would say a full two thirds of the book was devoted to his life and military career before he took office. While I have read other books that fully detail Washington's Presidency, I think a complete biography really should pay equal attention to both stages of his life.

Overall this is a very good biography and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about George Washington. For those who wish to expand their knowledge base after completing this book, Ellis complied a very thorough collection of notes and citations at the end of the book. ( )
  Mootastic1 | Jan 15, 2016 |
A concise biography of the great man, exactly what I sought. Survived the French and Indian war through luck and sheer force of character. In fact you can't read his story without realizing how much fortune's wheel determines things. Received no higher education, yet retained pockets of wisdom that helped temper his exceptional selfassuredness. Certainly the American Revolution could not have been carried off without him. And his dismissal of royal privelege avoided our own flirtation with monarchy. ( )
  JamesMScott | May 30, 2015 |
Drawing from the newly catalogued Washington papers at the University of Virginia, Joseph Ellis paints a full portrait of George Washington's life and career -- from his military years through his two terms as president. Ellis illuminates the difficulties the first executive confronted as he worked to keep the emerging country united in the face of adversarial factions. He richly details Washington's private life and illustrates the ways in which... ( )
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  Tutter | Feb 21, 2015 |
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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)

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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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