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His Excellency: George Washington
His Excellency: George Washington (Hardcover)
by Joseph J. Ellis (Author) "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..." (more)
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Editorial Reviews
As commander of the Continental army, George Washington united the American colonies, defeated the British army, and became the world's most famous man. But how much do Americans really know about their first president? Today, as Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph J. Ellis says in this crackling biography, Americans see their first president on dollar bills, quarters, and Mount Rushmore, but only as "an icon--distant, cold, intimidating." In truth, Washington was a deeply emotional man, but one who prized and practiced self-control (an attribute reinforced during his years on the battlefield).

Washington first gained recognition as a 21-year-old emissary for the governor of Virginia, braving savage conditions to confront encroaching French forces. As the de facto leader of the American Revolution, he not only won the country's independence, but helped shape its political personality and "topple the monarchical and aristocratic dynasties of the Old World." When the Congress unanimously elected him president, Washington accepted reluctantly, driven by his belief that the union's very viability depended on a powerful central government. In fact, keeping the country together in the face of regional allegiances and the rise of political parties may be his greatest presidential achievement.

Based on Washington's personal letters and papers, His Excellency is smart and accessible--not to mention relatively brief, in comparison to other encyclopedic presidential tomes. Ellis's short, succinct sentences speak volumes, allowing readers to glimpse the man behind the myth. --Andy Boynton Exclusive Content
Curious about George? reveals a few facts about the legendary first president of the United States.

Washington bust by Jean Antoine Houdon.
Courtesy of the Mt. Vernon Ladies' Assoc.

1. The famous tale about Washington chopping down the cherry tree ("Father, I cannot tell a lie") is a complete fabrication.

2. George Washington never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River--in fact, to do so from the shore of his Mount Vernon home would have been physically impossible.

3. George Washington did not wear wooden teeth. His poorly fitting false teeth were in fact made of cow's teeth, human teeth, and elephant ivory set in a lead base.

4. Early in his life, Washington was himself a slave owner. His opinions changed after he commanded a multiracial army in the Revolutionary War. He eventually came to recognize slavery as "a massive American anomaly."

5. In 1759, having resigned as Virginia's military commander to become a planter, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis. Washington’s marriage to the colony's wealthiest widow dramatically changed his life, catapulting him into Virginia aristocracy.

6. Scholars have discredited suggestions that Washington's marriage to Martha lacked passion, as well as the provocative implications of the well-worn phrase "George Washington slept here."

7. Washington held his first public office when he was 17 years old, as surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.

8. At age 20, despite no prior military experience, Washington was appointed an adjutant in the Virginia militia, in which he oversaw several militia companies, and was assigned the rank of major.

9. As a Virginia aristocrat, Washington ordered all his coats, shirts, pants, and shoes from London. However, most likely due to the misleading instructions he gave his tailor, the suits almost never fit. Perhaps this is why he appears in an old military uniform in his 1772 portrait.

10. In 1751, during a trip to Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence, Washington was stricken with smallpox and permanently scarred. Fortunately, this early exposure made him immune to the disease that would wipe out colonial troops during the Revolutionary War.

Important dates in George Washington's life.
Engraving of Mount Vernon, 1804. Courtesy of the Mt. Vernon Ladies' Assoc.

1732: George Washington is born at his father's estate in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

1743: George’s father, Augustine Washington, dies.

1752: At age 20, despite the fact that he has never served in the military, Washington is appointed adjutant in the Virginia militia, with the rank of major.

1753: As an emissary to Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, he travels to the Ohio River Valley to confront French forces--the first of a series of encounters that would lead to the French and Indian War.

1755: Washington is appointed commander-in-chief of Virginia's militia.

1759: He marries wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis.

1774: Washington is elected to the First Continental Congress.

1775: He is unanimously elected by the Continental Congress as its army's commander-in-chief. Start of the American Revolution.

1776: On Christmas Day, Washington leads his army across the Delaware River and launches a successful attack against Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey.

1781: With the French, he defeats British troops in Yorktown, Virginia, precipitating the end of the war.

1783: The Revolutionary War officially ends.

1788: The Constitution is ratified.

1789: Washington is elected president.

1797: He fulfills his last term as president.

1799: Washington dies on December 14, sparking a period of national mourning.

From Publishers Weekly
In this follow-up to his bestselling Founding Brothers, Ellis offers a magisterial account of the life and times of George Washington, celebrating the heroic image of the president whom peers like Jefferson and Madison recognized as "their unquestioned superior" while acknowledging his all-too-human qualities. Ellis recreates the cultural and political context into which Washington strode to provide leadership to the incipient American republic. But more importantly, the letters and other documents Ellis draws on bring the aloof legend alive—as a young soldier who sought to rise through the ranks of the British army during the French and Indian War, convinced he knew the wilderness terrain better than his commanding officers; as a Virginia plantation owner (thanks to his marriage) who watched over his accounts with a ruthless eye; as the commander of an outmatched rebel army who, after losing many of his major battles, still managed to catch the British in an indefensible position. Following Washington from the battlefield to the presidency, Ellis elegantly points out how he steered a group of bickering states toward national unity; Ellis also elaborates on Washington's complex stances on issues like slavery and expansion into Native American territory. The Washington who emerges from these pages is similar to the one portrayed in a biographical study by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn published earlier this year, but Ellis's richer version leaves readers with a deeper sense of the man's humanity. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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108 of 114 people found the following review helpful:

A Balanced Introduction, November 16, 2004
Reviewer:Theo Logos (Pittsburgh, PA) - See all my reviews
His Excellency George Washington attempts to free Washington from the frozen icon/monument status that has gathered around his name, and presents him to the reader as an approachable, flesh and blood portrait. Joseph Ellis accomplishes this goal admirably. Most notably, he manages to steer cleanly between Charybdis and Scylla, avoiding the twin errors of portraying his subject as a saint, or its opposite, which he describes in his prefaces as "the deadest, whitest male in American history." He accomplishes this in a modest 275 pages, which makes this book an ideal introduction for someone beginning to study the life of Washington.
The central thesis of this work is that Washington's amazing career was driven by an enlightened self-interest, tempered by a hard-earned practical wisdom. Always sticking closely to the available evidence, Ellis shows us a young Washington full of unbounded ambition for wealth and social status that he learned to control and temper, but never eliminate. Ellis writes that, "ambition this gargantuan were only glorious if harnessed to a cause larger than oneself, which they most assuredly were after 1775." He shows us Washington as a self-educated man, not from books like his illustrious contemporary Ben Franklin, but from practical, visceral experiences of his youth fighting the French and Indians in the backcountry of Pennsylvania. He views Washington's inglorious defeat at the Great Meadows and his miraculous survival of the carnage of Braddock's massacre as critical events that freed him of illusions, and left him a man who viewed the world through practical realities rather than shimmering ideals. This practical education, working on his natural ambition, created the control mechanisms that allowed Washington to serve his nation so long and so well.
Ellis writes mainly of the public Washington. He begins the book not with Washington's birth, but at the point in his youth when he first appeared on the world stage. While the short length of the book limits the depth of its inquiry, it does manage to touch on most every important aspect of Washington's public life, including his positions on dealings with the American Indians, and his evolving ideas about the injustice of slavery. There are many other books that can provide more in depth and comprehensive accounts of Washington. This book serves as an outstanding, balanced introduction to the man we call the father of our country, and is an excellent place to begin.

Theo Logos

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98 of 108 people found the following review helpful:

Excellent Introduction to the Life of George Washington, October 26, 2004
Reviewer:C. Hutton "book maven" (East Coast, USA) - See all my reviews
Mr. Ellis has written a succinct and fresh biography of our first President. A previous recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his American Revolutionary histories, he has expanded upon a brief essay of Washington included in his "Founding Brothers."

This is not an in-depth day-by-day account of Washington's life. For that pleasure, I refer the reader to the definitive four volume set (and 1,800+ pages) published over 30 years ago by James Thomas Flexner. Even Mr. Flexner's one volume abridgement is more detailed (at 400 + pages) than Mr. Ellis' new biography (only 275 pages of narrative).

The difference lies in Mr. Ellis' big picture approach and his interpretation of key events during Washington's lifetime. So Washington's love of Sally Fairfax is restricted to a mere two pages and his estate at Mount Vernon gathers more ink than his tranquil marriage to Martha. Instead "His Excellency" focuses upon the impact that Washington's decisions had upon the course of American history. Overall this is a well-written and thoughtful introduction to the life of George Washington.

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Get Ready to Dig In..., October 8, 2006
Reviewer:Mario Vittone (Chesapeake, VA) - See all my reviews
Joseph Ellis is not for the faint of heart. He writes about washington like a man who has read EVERYTHING washington wrote. That's becuase he read everything Washington wrote...and was written about what he said. Therefore, one must be prepared to display more than a passing interest in Washington to get through this book. Having said that, getting through it is a worthwhile endeavor. In my learning life, I am now officially done with Washington. This book gives a more complete insight into his life as any other I have read.

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Monumental, September 28, 2006
Reviewer:John W. petralia (Loveladies, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
They were giants. Franklin, Paine, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe. Names synonymous with greatness. But if they were the rock stars of their time, George Washington was Elvis, Mick and the Beatles rolled into one. Standing six feet three inches, athletically built, well bred and handsome, he could have come direct from central casting. But, while he never lost site of the benefits of form, this was truly a man of action. When others fretted about French/Indian incursions in the Ohio territories, farmer Washington took up arms and became Colonel Washington, the citizen warrior. When the British moved to occupy Massachusetts, he again left his beloved Mt. Vernon to lead men into battle. Lead here is the operative word. Through the discerning eyes of Joseph Ellis, a historian who can also write, we glimpse the human inside the monument. A reluctant warrior, Washington is more wily Fabius than bold Caesar, more Eisenhower strategist and less straight-ahead Patton. But, if Allied Commander Ike had his hands full with Patton, Monty and DeGaulle, imagine controlling uber-egos like Hamilton, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. Even during their most virulent political battles, Jefferson, Adams and the rest knew His Excellency General Washington was the headman. Yet, the capstone of his greatness came not when the general ascended to His Excellency Emperor Washington but when he became simply Mr. President.

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Washington from a distance, September 25, 2006
Reviewer:Liviu Badragan "Lee" (Chicago, IL USA) - See all my reviews
I liked the very readable style the book is written in. It doesn't get bogged down on minute details but gives the readers an overall picture of Washington, with a heavy focus on his political life.

I don't know if this is a result of the records or of the author, since this is my first biography on Washington, but I didn't get a good feel for who Washington was as a person. The book details his actions, but it doesn't let us into his motives and his passions.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

Now he is not just a face on the dollar, September 12, 2006
Reviewer:andris virsnieks (Seattle, WA USA) - See all my reviews
At the end of the book I felt that I gained an idea of what Washington was really like. For me Mr. Ellis did bring stone to life. But also, unexpectedly, I found a little bit of comfort in reading this history in this time of war and trouble. Washington made a lot of mistakes, lost most of the battles but won the war anyway.

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