Theo Logos's Reviews > His Excellency: George Washington

His Excellency by Joseph J. Ellis
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May 26, 12

bookshelves: history, biography-autobiography, american-colonial-early-republic
Read in November, 2004

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.
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