Jeff's Reviews > His Excellency: George Washington

His Excellency by Joseph J. Ellis
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's review
Dec 27, 08

bookshelves: history, biography
Read in December, 2008

I listened to Ellis' excellent biography of George Washington on CD in my car during my commutes over a period of about a week, saturating my mind in early American lives and times. Ellis' contribution in Founding Brothers was to remind us that the 'founding fathers' were not a group of stodgy old men who worked in harmony. Rather, they were a shifting mass of young men with monumental egos, petty rivalries, fickle alliances, and intense hatreds. He continued in this vein with His Excellency, focusing on the relationships between these principal figures in American history, as well as their foibles. I especially enjoyed learning more about Washington and his protégés (Lafayette and Hamilton), tensions with Jefferson (who, despite his status as a demigod at the University of Virginia, where I went to medical school, seems to have been quite manipulative and two-faced). Since I listened to this book while detoxing from two-party politics of the 2008 presidential elections, I was intrigued to learn that the two-party system had it's roots in Jefferson's resistance of Hamilton and Washington's vision of federal authority and in the interest of southerners 'state's rights' (i.e. to preserve slave labor). Washington's attitudes about his own slaves, understood in historical context, are fascinating. Clearly, he considered them chattel, but also refused to sell them if this meant breaking up families. Accordingly, he retired to Mount Vernon responsible for a growing, in-bread 'family' of almost 300 slaves who remained dependent on him until freed in his will. History will probably never record what became of them.

Washington’s relationship with Martha was hardly described at all, perhaps because she destroyed their letters just prior to her own death.

As a physician, I was surprised to be on the edge of my seat while learning of Washington's death to epiglottis (and of the ignorant attempts of the time's best doctors to treat it with successive bleedings).

I guess it's time to re-read McCulloch's John Adams...

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