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His Excellency: George Washington Paperback – November 8, 2005
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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. 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.--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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 the Audio CD edition.
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I have recently completed my 2nd listening of this audio book. After my first listening session was completed I was motivated to seek out other books detailing certain aspects of Washington's life particularly his experiences in the French and Indian War.
Concerning the story told by Mr. Ellis I can only say it is a masterful rendering of the life of Washington and highly recommended.
Then I discovered this masterful book. Not only does it follow his career, but it informs the reader as to Washington's motivations, emotional life, and methods - he was passionate, ambitious, coldly shrewd, and stringently self-disciplined. (In contrast to his popular image, he had a fiery temper that he learned to keep in check with great difficulty.) In each step of his life, he learned certain lessons from experience rather than books, shaping his attitudes in his own way. Though born to a plantation family, he was relatively underprivileged (i.e. not the prime heir) and so had to make his way more or less on his own; he had little formal education. First, he found a military career under the British. While he learned a great deal about how to fight on American soil - with different requirements than EUropean theatres - he came to despise aristocratic privilege, which all too often reserved position and advantage to the mediocre and undeserving.
Second, after a tumultuous career beginning - he oversaw a massacre by Indian allies that led indirectly to the Seven Years War and was a key player in many significant defeats - he benefitted from his reputation to make a crucially important marriage to the widow Martha, enabling himself to become a gentleman farmer for 16 years, at the pinnacle of Virginia gentry. However, while maintaining a properly pseudo-aristocratic life style with extremely expensive European goods, he proved to be an innovative business man, with real estate deals and experiments in the management of his estates; because he came to distrust faraway officials dispensing favors and merchants who enmeshed his neighbors in inescapable debt, he moved away from mono-crops such as tobacco whose markets were unpredictable towards self sustainability. This created a streak of fierce independence and self-reliance within him and, alone among the founding fathers, he died a very rich man with minimal debt. When the time came for the revolution, he was ready to risk everything to preserve his political and economic autonomy.
Third, he took over the motley and poorly funded American rebel forces and led them to victory in spite of his early catastrophic defeat in New York, where he concluded that he would have to harass the British to gradually wear them down rather than confront them directly in the field. This long conflict forced him to contend with the incompetent confederation government, which convinced him of the need for a strong executive that had the power to tax and act effectively. As such, this explains very clearly why he sided with the Federalists later. Once again, this was counterintuitive to conventional wisdom: the colonies had revolted against the British monarchies policies and taxation.
Fourth, we see the politician emerge at the start of the Constitutional Convention. Washington retired with unsurpassed prestige, so his participation might ruin his reputation as the country's liberator. He waited a long time to commit himself, weighing his options and getting up to speed on the political vocabulary through tutorials with Madison - while he had some idea of what he wanted to do from his experience as a leader and executive, he relied on his more learned colleagues for the right way to describe and sell it.
Fifth, as president, Washington not only established many of the norms of executive power and practice that have survived intact to the present day, but also attempted to manipulate the political forces to prevent the country from fragmenting into competing adversarial powers. Of course, in hindsight, we know that he failed to forge a durable union by the middle of the 19C, that the issue of slavery (and the economic system it supported) had to be reckoned with later, though the delay of a few generations may have been enough to keep the union from immediate and permanent disintegration. Nonetheless, Washington essentially created the federal system of government, with its ability to raise funds, maintain an army, take precedence over states' prerogatives, and serve as a decisive economic actor (all of which is still controversial). Here, Hamilton was his indispensable instrument of action - but it was Washington who was the real mastermind. To paraphrase, he attempted to make the United States a singular noun rather than plural. Ellis convincingly portrays the immensity of this undertaking, as the first republic to rule over such a huge and socially disparate country.
Ellis' book is quite brief, so I feared it would be superficial, such as Anthony Everitt's mediocre treatments of Roman pols. Fortunately, Ellis pulls it off with wonderful depth: the book has a density that can only come from a master historian and writer. I implicitly trusted his analyses at every turn and never found his statements glib or tendentious. He is critical of Washington, never makes excuses for his faults, but respectful.
Warmly recommended. This is a great introduction to an extremely complex man.
I'm simply amazed by this work. I've enjoyed it and understood so much, it's truly surprising. It's an easy read. And I can tell you the level of information that is profound and insightful is outstanding. I live in New York City, and received this from a stranger who was rummaging thru an entire library of books on the streetside on the Upper East Side. He offered me several books, including one by Obama, which I was about to take. Until I saw this book...I figured why not read about someone who already has a legacy rather than someone who wrote this book while still aspiring to one. I've done light reading on some of the War for Independence since some major events of that time occured withing a few hundred miles or less from here. Far from being a simple world, you're able to see what swirling circumstances surrounded both the birth of America and the advent of it's greatest Founding Father. As a military officer, I was blown away to read that Washington had been at the start of the French and Indian War, and had been party to war crimes. Such things drive a more human portrait of the man. And you wonder, would he have survived the scrutiny and conscience of today's world? He was surely a great man in an amazing time. But having read this book, I can say so with utter confidence rather than a vague understanding which is more notional than substantial. So compelling. What's amazing is how much more about America you will understand. I'm astounded by how much 'American' ideas that took shape in his time are still prevalent and alive today. For these reasons, this book and this nation are truly special.