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
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Curious about George?
Amazon.com 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. Washingtons 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: Georges 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.