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His Excellency: George Washington (2004)

by Joseph J. Ellis

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3,463583,067 (3.99)140
From the French and Indian War to Mount Vernon, from the American Revolution to the presidency, Ellis delivers what will stand the test of time as the definitive biography of the greatest American icon.
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This is an excellent biography of George Washington that is long enough (272 pages) to grasp both the story of his life and his role in American history without penetrating into levels of detail that would make it a major tome. First published in 2004, the book is based factually, according to the author, Joseph Ellis, largely on the then-new comprehensive edition of Washington’s official correspondence. In terms of theme, Ellis says he was highly influenced by Marcus Cunliffe’s interpretation of Washington in George Washington: Man and Monument. Ellis’ main purpose is to penetrate beyond the myths and portraits of Washington to understand the man's character and how that character related to his role in history. In this the author is successful, and the reader leaves this book with a greater understanding of the real Washington and his importance in American history.

Washington was famous for his self-control, but Ellis picks up on a theme of the eulogy by Gouvernor Morris that Washington had very strong emotions that required such self-control if he were to achieve his objectives. Ellis links this self-control to Washington’s desire to control the world in which he acted, e.g., the administration of Mount Vernon and his far-flung properties, the conduct of the War of Independence and his two terms as first President of the United States. While Washington did not have the high level of education enjoyed by some of the other founders, his early experiences in war as a young man and in managing his estates formed his philosophical outlook. He was a realist who thought that individuals and nations acted to pursue their interests, not abstract ideals. Thus, he was not surprised that the British did not accept the many American proposals for conciliation between the colonies and Great Britain, and he fully expected Native Americans to resist white settlement on their lands. (As President, he tried to set aside permanent safe zones for the Cherokees and other tribes, but these promises were broken by Andrew Jackson). As President, he also refused to bend to the popular will to be pro-French or pro-British but rather always supported a neutralist policy that would give the United States time to grow into a major power. He foresaw that war, especially with Great Britain in the 1790’s, could have destroyed the fragile new republic. And while he appreciated many of the ideals of the revolution, his own personal opposition to the British Empire was driven in large part by the adverse economic consequences of the imperial system for American colonists (including his own estates) and his resentment at Americans being treated like second-class citizens by the British. (The appellation “American” for the colonists was originated by the British as a disparaging term for provincial settlers on the far-western edge of the British Empire.)

Washington committed himself to the personal risks and potential glory of the revolution when, on June 15, 1775, at the age of 43, he accepted his unanimous selection by the Continental Congress to become commander-in-chief. Despite his insistence that as commander-in-chief he was subordinate to the people and their representatives, the Continental Congress, he inevitably became the symbol of revolution and a quasi-king as a replacement figure for George III in the eyes of the American revolutionaries. His recognition of civilian authority did not prevent his well-known frustrations with the weakness of the Continental Congress, in particular its abject failure to support the Continental Army with necessary resources, including paying the troops. (While he acknowledged that militias contributed to victories ((such as Saratoga)), he was under no illusion that volunteers, who could disappear on very short notice, could actually win the war. His concern with the shortage of manpower overcame his initial reluctance to recruit African-Americans into the Army. There was no segregation in the army; the U.S. Army would not be integrated again until the Korean War.) This experience seared into his brain the strong belief that the new nation could not succeed without a strong central government, including a strong executive, regardless of how the anti-governmental ideals of the “spirit of 76” were interpreted. Desiring a decisive victory, Washington’s first inclination was to attack the British aggressively. He had a tendency to develop complex battle plans that were nearly impossible to implement. The revolutionary cause was saved from this initial rashness by the strategic and tactical mistakes of the British, and eventually Washington learned the “Fabian” technique of war, i.e., never risk the Army in battle but rather be ready to retreat after imposing glancing losses on the enemy, the so-called “War of Posts.” The hardships at Valley Forge were the crucial event of the war because Valley Forge created the standing army that could persevere until victory. According to Ellis, more important than Washington’s spotty record as a general was his insistence that the Army be inoculated against smallpox, which otherwise could have destroyed it. (As a young man, Washington survived a smallpox infection he got in Barbados and thus was immune.)

Washington was generally pessimistic about the prospects for American victory given British resources, command of the sea, and experienced soldiers. The French entry in the war after the victory at Saratoga also initially disappointed him because France did not immediately challenge the British for naval superiority in American waters, and thus made Washington's desire for a decisive battle at New York impossible. While the British were fighting General Greene in the Carolinas, the French General Rochambeau began to encourage Washington to move the Army south to Virginia. Eventually, Washington gave up his stubborn insistence on a battle in New York, and when Rochambeau arranged for the French Navy to enter the Chesapeake Bay, Washington clearly saw the opportunity to defeat Cornwallis and led the combined armies south to the decisive battle at Yorktown. (Washington’s stubbornness may have contributed in one respect to the success at Yorktown: the British General Henry Clinton, who commanded the forces in New York, intercepted a letter in which Washington still declared that New York was the main target of the Continental Army, and this may have contributed to Clinton’s fateful decision not to assist Cornwallis.) Ellis declares that Yorktown was the most consequential battle in American history.

With the war won the, fears arose that Washington might use the Army to make himself king. Washington thought the Army should be maintained until peace was officially declared but made it clear that he would not seize power. According to Ellis, when George III learned of this, he was heard to say: “If Washington resisted the monarchic mantle and retired, . . . he would be the greatest man in the world.” Washington’s officers thought differently and organized the “Newburgh Conspiracy” to give Washington dictatorial power. Washington rejected this “last temptation;” in an eloquent speech to his officers, he stated that “any attempted coup by the army was simultaneously a repudiation of the principles for which they had all been fighting and an assault on his [Washington’s] own integrity.” He made a dramatic farewell to the Army, his “patriotic band of brothers,” and symbolically gave up his sword.

Despite his refusal to submit to authoritarian temptations, Washington was an ambitious man who not only expected to lead his country in war and in peace, but also wanted that leadership ultimately to support his own reputation with posterity. Unlike other major figures of history who used success in war or politics to aggrandize their personal power, he recognized the need to give up his power when it was the right the proper thing to do for his country and for his reputation with posterity. Many of his actions were driven by his consolidation of his view of his reputation with his interpretation of what was good for his country. He came to see slavery as both economically inefficient and morally repugnant, but his realism held him back from calling publicly for its termination. His hope was that over time it would wither away. For various reasons, he was also unsuccessful in freeing his slaves during his lifetime. But he was definitive in his will that the slaves at Mount Vernon should be freed upon the dearth of his wife and, to the extent necessary, should be provided economic support (e.g., for the elderly).

Washington was like other men and women who have ambitions, emotions and flaws and make mistakes. This was especially true of his military record. The greatness of Washington was that he could rise above these human characteristics to identify his life with the objectives, as he saw them, of the thirteen colonies and in so doing establish the unity of the new nation. In this achievement, Ellis regards him as the greatest US President. ( )
  drsabs | Apr 28, 2022 |
A fascinating, complex, man who lead at the front. ( )
  fuzzipueo | Apr 24, 2022 |
Joseph Ellis does excellent research but is not a very good writer. If you can get past the latter, his books are well worth reading. ( )
  scottring | Sep 21, 2021 |
I realized as I read this book how little I actually knew about George Washington. I feel this book gave me a good overview of his life. He played a lot of things close to his chest, and Martha destroyed all their correspondence when he died, so it still seems hard to really know him, but I think this author makes some pretty good guesses. How amazing to be front and center in such an important time, and of course he knew it so he worked hard to cultivate his personality and memory, but not in the way a lot of folks would have - he was quite wise with most of his decisions. Very good read. ( )
  glade1 | Jun 24, 2021 |
Sometimes it is hard to have a vision of what it must have been like at the birth of our country. It is even harder to imagine that these people...Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton were real. I found the book very insightful and learned quite a bit about Washington. I found the book very compelling but I am not sure it was the writing as much as the subject :) ( )
  mcsp | Jan 25, 2021 |
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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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From the French and Indian War to Mount Vernon, from the American Revolution to the presidency, Ellis delivers what will stand the test of time as the definitive biography of the greatest American icon.

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