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His Excellency: George Washington Paperback – November 8, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

Amazon.com Exclusive Content
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. 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.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (November 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400032539
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400032532
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (439 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
In the preface to this ambitious and largely successful biography of George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis sets the tone by calling his subject "America's greatest secular saint" and "the Foundingest Father of them all."

That puts the biographer's problem nicely. Washington is so universally revered as well as so distant from us in time that he is more marble than human flesh. The biographer's task is to somehow breathe life back into a monument. Ellis has a good track record at this sort of thing. Most recently he did the trick with Thomas Jefferson in AMERICAN SPHINX. His work on Washington is in somewhat the same vein, and is equally accomplished.

Ellis's approach sails close to the dangerous shoals of psycho-biography but never quite runs aground on them. In trying to fathom Washington's true character and motives, he sticks fairly close to the written record without presuming to peer inside his subject's head.

His conclusions are not always those that today's schoolchildren find in their history texts. In the narrow tactical sense, for instance, Ellis judges Washington no great military genius. He points out that Washington lost more battles than he won, he was a control freak and a man very conscious of his place in history. Despite this "posing for posterity," however, Ellis is favorably inclined toward his subject because he had a career "devoted to getting the big things right."

That career, of course, had two separate parts: military commander and --- after four years in retirement --- our first President.
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Format: Hardcover
When it is seen that popular historian Joseph J. Ellis has written another book about a personality from the Revolutionary War era, excitement fills the publishing world. When it is seen, though, that the subject of his book is George Washington, the question comes quickly to mind, "Do we need another book about George Washington?"

After having read Ellis's book, the answer would seem to be a less ambiguous than you would think, "Well, no." There is no "new" information about Washington here and very little noteworthy insight.

From the introduction, we learn that there have been many biographies of Washington. Some of them, like the tales of an early nineteenth century parson, were pretty fanciful (the "cherry tree incident", the dollar across the Potomac), while others were quite factual and scholarly. The only thing that could be said against this second group seems to have been that they were exceedingly long and, possibly, dry of read.

Such cannot be said of Ellis's work. Ellis is an excellent and engaging writer who could write a book on the local city council's discussion of noise abatement and leave you hoping there's a second volume. He writes with warmth and humor and all those other buzzwords so frequently misapplied to writers and I can truly say I enjoyed reading the book.

With so many other works on Washington already out there, it was left to Ellis to try to find some new angle with which to chronicle the Father of Our Country. With all the facts recorded (almost ad nauseum), what angle could he use? Ellis has chosen to explore the "character" of George Washington.

It takes Ellis 274 pages (plus some end notes) to determine that Washington was aloof.
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