Monday, November 30, 2009

His Excellency George Washington

by Joseph J. Ellis

What, another biography of George Washington?
 Ellis acknowledges from the outset that there have been many, many biographies of George Washington throughout the years, but while his is a biography, its goal is somewhat different and more focused. Ellis strives to uncover his subject's personality, his character, the driving force behind Washington's life. It's a ponderous task, in part because Washington very rarely wrote about his feelings or emotions in his correspondence or diary (while he may have done so to Martha, she destroyed all of his correspondence to her upon his death, at his request) and also in part because of the shroud of myths which have grown up around the "father of our country."

What we do learn is fascinating. Ellis does a masterful job of delving into the major events of his subject's life, analyzing each in the context of the times using multiple sources--such as Washington's correspondence which survived, as well as other contemporaneous writings--and then discussing the question "what does this tell us about his character and personality?" with every series of events.

As a young man, Washington struggled to make something of himself. He began his career as a soldier, and later, after marrying Martha, he achieved a certain status in the aristocratic Virginia planter class. Ellis reviews Washington's successes and failures as a young soldier and draws conslusions based on his writings and the public reactions to the events.

Ellis does not shy away from the question of slavery, and investigates Washington's personal views on the institution of slavery, which were tempered by the limitations he felt due to the fragile status of the new Union. Washington had his way finally, however, in his well-known and highly detailed will, in which he freed all of his enslaved persons.

Interestingly, Washington had a reserved view of the French Revolution, contrasting sharply with that of Thomas Jefferson. He also clashed with Jefferson on Federalism--Washington's experiences leading a federal army without a federal system to support it convinced him that a strong Federal government with the power to levy taxes was essential to the Union. Also intriguing was that Washington seemed well aware of his role in history as a major figure in the forming of the new nation, even later editing his personal papers, knowing that later generations would read his writing.

I found the book very interesting. I appreciated that Ellis debunked many myths about Washington and the depth with which he analyzed Washington's writings and the other correspondence of the day to distill what he could of Washington's true self. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject.

Or on CD (audiobook):


  1. Did George really sleep all over the 13 colonies? Just kidding!

  2. Depends on what you mean by "sleep." He did agree to go to all 13 for something related to the Constitution...and accomplished it at some point. So... ;-)


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