His Excellency: George Washington

by Joseph J. Ellis

Hardcover, 2004




New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.


From the French and Indian War to Mount Vernon, from the American Revolution to the presidency, Ellis delivers what will stand the test of time as the definitive biography of the greatest American icon.

User reviews

LibraryThing member derekstaff
This book by Ellis, his best that I've read, is a great examination of the life of this most revered and yet most enigmatic President. Despite a dearth of personal primary sources, Ellis does a fine job looking behind the mask to see the character off Washington. A man of great passions and ambition, Washington had a keen understanding of the role of perception, and carefully crafted the regal public persona so remarkable. As a tactician, he does not rank among the greatest military minds, nor was he the brilliant political philosopher of so many of the "Founding Fathers." But this book helped me understand how his very character helped him to play a major factor in the survival of the Continental Army, prolonging the war to the point where the British could not politically afford to sustain the effort; and that Washington deserves more credit than I had realized in establishing the role of an elected, temporary, and limited executive--a role for which there was virtually no historical precedent.… (more)
LibraryThing member teckelvik
This is a really well-done biography of George Washington. It suffers from the central defect of all Washington biographies - the complete destruction of his private correspondence by his wife, Martha, who wanted his privacy respected. She got her wish, but at the expense of history.

Washington was a very quiet, reserved character who was unreservedly admired and respected by his contemporaries. He had his critics, and made his mistakes, but overall, he really deserves the plaudits that were heaped on him. In particular, his decision to step away from public life, both after winning the Revolutionary War and after serving two terms as president, are almost unique in world history, and served the nascent US well. Ellis shows how he was shaped by his childhood and his early experiences of frontier warfare, and how his own sense of honor was the driving force of his life.

It was very interesting to read the degree to which the financial structure of the planter class of Virginia and the south was based on slavery and also unsustainable. Ellis sketches how the large families were often driven into debt and bankruptcy due to this, and shows how fear of this very real fate marked the political defense of slavery by southern politicians, particularly Thomas Jefferson. Washington, perhaps because he was not really part of this class (his social origins were a step lower), recognized early on that this was a trap and worked to diversify his plantations. He came to believe that slavery was wrong, and struggled to free his own slaves, but financial and legal realities made it difficult. Ellis speculates that Martha, wealthy in her own right, and through estates and slaves still legally belonging to her first husband's family (although she had lifetime use of them), may have opposed Washington in this regard, which would help explain why his will freed the slaves on her eventual death.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Jarratt
After reading several books on the American Revolution and Founding Fathers that were written in a more academic style, "His Excellency" was a breath of fresh air. It was a pleasure to read in large part because of Joseph Ellis' more relaxed writing style.

As this is the first book I read about Washington, I cannot compare it to others on the same subject. What I can do is report that I made good use of my highlighter as there was so much interesting content. While "His Excellency" is a rather short book (considering the subject) it's packed with great information that I felt did a great job introducing Washington's personality and actions. I also enjoyed the few instances where Ellis would point out how important it is for us to consider decisions made based on the context of when they're made, rather than letting our current political, social, and global environment cloud our decisions or presumptions.

I would strongly encourage this book as a great introduction to our first president.
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LibraryThing member weakley
Biography of the year for me. Ellis has produced a historical, thoughful, indepth, and yet readable story of one of the truly great men we have been given. While not an American, I am still allowed to have a respectful interest in some of the founders of your state. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson make a powerful triumvirate. These 300 odd pages about Washington left me wanting a little bit more depth about his early years, but that is my sole complaint about the book.

This is a suggested read for anyone interested in the tale of a man who strove to live up to his principles.
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LibraryThing member JechtShot
His Excellency is a near perfect introduction to the life and times of President George Washington. Joseph J. Ellis masterfully condenses the life of an extraordinary revolutionary leader in under 300 pages. This book provides an overview of the life and times of George Washington without getting too bogged down in the details. The only issue is that if you are not a student of the revolutionary period in American History you may need to exercise your search skills in order to remind yourself of various battles, treaties and historical figures that did not stick to your brain pan after high school.

One of the interesting points I did not remember from earlier study of this period in history was that political corruption was already in full swing at the genesis of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were both playing the system, the people and the president to further their personal agendas. This may not be news to others, but for some reason I thought our founding fathers were a bit more honorable. The topic of slavery is a prevailing topic throughout the book. There is much discussion of emancipation and dissolving slavery, but my takeaway here is that though morally wrong, slavery was economically important and would have to be dealt with by future leaders. It is very difficult to comprehend this type of thinking in this day and age.

This was a great re-introduction to the Revolutionary period and Ellis has sparked my interest enough to dive deeper and learn more about the enigmatic General Washington. I highly recommend His Excellency for those looking to learn more about our founding fathers.
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LibraryThing member mgeorge2755
Forever remembered as the first president of the United States, George Washington is often a man that is greatly misunderstood. I love how the author chose to title this book with the title that Washington absolutely despised. The more I know about this man, the more I am intrigued.
LibraryThing member Angelic55blonde
This is a great biography of George Washington and everyone should read it at least once. Joseph J. Ellis is a great historian and his writign is easy to follow.
LibraryThing member mcelhonec
I learned many things about George Washington and his contmeporaries. Mr. Washington is not deified in this book and the author makes our first President seem human.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Ellis writes in an easy, flowing style. Almost conversational in tone, Washington's life comes alive as the pages turn. While not a great deal of evidence of Washington's personal life has survived, Ellis does a fantastic job filling in the gaps with Washington's military career and political rise to power. The text is supplemented by a few pages of photographs - mostly portraits Washington had commissioned of himself… (more)
LibraryThing member dvf1976
An excellent biography of an excellent man.

I really admire George Washington's ability to be able to walk away from power as well as his feelings about negotiating with nations (Nations cannot be counted on to act morally. They will only do that if it coincidentally in their best interest)

I don't know if Joe Ellis intentionally characterizes Thomas Jefferson as a jerk or whether that's historical fact...… (more)
LibraryThing member swimr23
Ellis writes in an easy, flowing style. Almost conversational in tone, Washington's life comes alive as the pages turn. While not a great deal of evidence of Washington's personal life has survived, Ellis does a fantastic job filling in the gaps with Washington's military career and political rise to power.
I liked this book. It is very easy to read and mostly everyone can enjoy it. I am not too much about history but this book made me realize how important this man was and is to our society.
I would use this book in a history class and have the children write a report on the importance of one of our founding fathers. I would also use this book and have the children to a skit or play over his life.
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LibraryThing member CritEER
- I was emotionally moved with the chapters regarding GW's retirement from the military and then from the Presidency
- With the slew of good books on GW (Adopted Son, Washington's Secret War, GW and Benedict Arnold, and Washington's Crossing) this is a must read to fully gain a understanding of the breath and depth of GW leadership and life experience
- All the important figures of the revolutionaly war, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, recognized GW was the most critical and oustanding hero in support of our new nation
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LibraryThing member TZYuhas
Ellis composes a very succinct biography of the man and the myth that was and is George Washington. He gently coaxes Geo. Washington from the annals of history to adeptly illustrate a man who was driven by his ambition yet cloaked the said ambition in modesty. Which stemmed from his desire and belief that he would be judged by posterity.… (more)
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
Right off the bat, I learned a word new to me: hegemony. That's always a plus. Of course, if I were better read, especially in history, I probably would have learned it years ago, but hey, I'm not above admitting my ignorance.

Overall, I enjoyed this biography of the first U. S. president. While there is inevitably quite a bit of history in it, the book is more about the man than about the history he shaped. Occasionally, it seemed a bit dry to me and once in awhile, the sentences seemed unnecessarily convoluted, but maybe that's just me. I especially was interested by Washington's personal and political views towards slavery and displacement of Native Americans and appreciated Mr. Ellis's insight into the subject. I only wish Martha Washington hadn't destroyed the correspondence between George and her because it would have been wonderful to know more about his private life and thoughts.… (more)
LibraryThing member LukeS
This is my first introduction to Washington's motivation, his hopes and dreams as he led the rag-tag Continental Army against the strongest nation on earth. Washington was a fervent believer in the Enlightenment ideals of the rights of man, and led a nation to throw over its colonizer, and then with just as much conviction, retired to country life.

One of Washington's basic urges was to own and develop some trans-Appalachian land. To this end he worked for decades on a canal from what is now Tennessee and Kentucky to the Potomac River. He saw the Revolution not only as an assertion of liberty for him and his countrymen, but as a tremendous personal opportunity.

"His Excellency" takes us from Washington's early days as a suveyor (which made him familiar with the land west of Virginia), through his days as a colonial officer in the British Army (at whose hands his mistreatment made for a durable grievance). The Great Man's motivations and abilities come into high focus in this excellent, highly readable account. No less an expert than King George III said that if someone were to lead the American Colonies to freedom, and then retire without a thought to dynasty, he truly would be a great man. Yep. That's right.
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LibraryThing member bkburner
I found this book to be less informative then others that I had read about our founding fathers (Adams, Hamilton, etc.). Perhaps there was less information available about George Washington than the others.

I found the author's style frustrating, at times. He seemed to pick up on a theme and then reiterate it over and over again until I wanted to just skip to the next chapter. Otherwise, I found the book easy and enjoyable to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member DavidCrawford
A superb insight into the Father of Our Country.
Joseph Ellis wrote an excellent book that will give you a superb insight into the Father of Our Country. There can only be one man to fit those shoes and George Washington is that man. Mr. Ellis enlightens the story of Washington in an engaging, easily understanding way, that non-historians will appreciate. He doesn’t get bogged down in trivial details, but gives the reader amble details to get a thorough understanding of George Washington.
In his book you will learn a great deal about Washington; his greatness and how he had to overcome so many criticisms and failures to become the sole beacon for the fledging United States. Ellis lets you know that Washington was not perfect by any means. In fact he wasn’t a great general. But, what he did have was persistence, courage and the ability to take advice from his staff of officers and even the French.
Highly recommend.
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LibraryThing member ZoharLaor
I felt the book is a fair portrayal of Washington as a human and gives the reader a new insight into the person. Mr. Ellis tries to take a man which has become a myth in his own time and deconstruct him to see what makes him tick. What did he find; Washington was a man like any of us, making his decisions based on what's good for his bank account, and putting in strategic moves for the future. We must remember that in that time people put in work to collect decades later, unlike today.

This is an overview of Washington's life, the important decisions he made and why did he make them. Mr. Ellis' research is well founded; his speculations and premises make logical sense and put a new light on old tales.

Are Mr. Ellis' assumptions correct?
Who know, but isn't that half the fun or reading history books, to make your own assumptions, theories and hypothesis and see if the author agrees with you.

Don't be afraid to read this book, you will come away with a great appreciation and admiration to Washington because, not despite, he was a human being and not a super-man.
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LibraryThing member ggarfield

Joseph Ellis has done a wonderful job giving real life to the man who won American independence in the Revolutionary War and who then went on to invent and sustain America’s emerging nationhood. George Washington’s early years on the Virginia frontier, to his role in the French and Indian War are fascinating enough. However, this early part of the book (and his life) serve to illustrate the crucible that these early days were to the creation of his iron will and the leadership qualities that brought him to lead the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War.

His role as General convinced him of the need for Federal power to raise money for, among other things, an army. The details of the Continental Army’s condition during the war further illustrate the amazing nature of America’s defeat of what was then the world’s preeminent military power. For example, during the winter of 1776-1777, many soldiers went without shoes and fought a well equipped British Army. It is interesting to learn more about the relationship between Washington and his chief aid in the war and as President; Alexander Hamilton. Moreover, Ellis draws some interesting contrasts between Washington and Jefferson (both of whom he has now devoted a book each) and their personal relationship. Washington emerges from this the more influential character.

Galvanized by these prior experiences, Washington’s influence on moving the confederation of states to the Constitutional Convention and ultimately the Constitution itself is crystal clear. No other Founding Father had such a realistic view of how to implement the new American ideals and, indeed, as Henry Lee expressed in Washington’s eulogy; “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

His Excellency does an outstanding job of giving the reader a perspective on Washington, the person and, thus, takes a little bit of the stone like statue away from his persona. Here we also learn of Washington’s obsession with managing the affairs of Mt Vernon and his considerable real estate empire while also being a General and a President. We get a sense that Washington’s famous aloofness and ability to remain silent in a storm were as Ellis puts it “protective tactics developed to prevent detection of the combustible materials simmering inside.”

This is an outstanding book. I’d read it again and likely will someday.
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LibraryThing member david7466
I really found this book to more about the war activities of the good general than about the person. Just my opinion.
LibraryThing member ksmyth
My first Joseph Ellis book was simply wonderful. Ellis avoids the sin of trying to tell us everything about Washington, and paints an understandable portrait of this most important founding father.
LibraryThing member charrod
A good read about the first and best American President. And a test for Facebook app......
LibraryThing member bartt95
A great, if somewhat short, book on the elusive George Washington.

Ellis' main objective is to find the man beneath the myth, to clear the vines from the statue. He does this well, the only problem being that Washington was so calm, so self-controlled, that his image and his person are often hard to distinguish from one another. Either way, its hard to draw any conclusions regarding accuracy, since this is the only book on this era that I've read; I have no real point of reference.

As to the writing, Ellis can write a great sentence, and make a great point. He writes in a scholarly manner, but not so much that it becomes tedious to read. Every now and then a sentence baffled me, and I truly had to read it a few times before I could understand it, but besides such small incidents Ellis' writing is marvelously clear.

The book gives a brief, if somewhat clipped, picture of Washington's life, first as an officer, then as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, leader of the constitutional convention, and finally, as the first president of the United States. He was practical where most Founding Fathers were idealistic, and had a life so incredibly stacked with activity that I find it impressive that he didn't drop dead at 50 like most of the males in his family. He managed to stand above everything, as a sort of overseer of his age. Perhaps that's why even though the book was about George himself, it read more like an overview of the times; sometimes it is hard to remember that he was a person, since so much of what we know of him comes through formal letters, bizarre rumors, and idealized images. What a pity that his wife burned all their correspondence; the letters would have probably helped us paint a more human portrait of Washington. Regardless of all this, he truly was a visionary, with an at times (not always) stunningly clear judgement, and without him the U.S. would have probably never been formed, lacking the necessary unifier that people loved and revered regardless of ideology or partisanship.
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LibraryThing member adribabe
What an interesting man. At times he is a very frustrating character but at others times you understand why. His stand was always somewhere in the middle even though he kept very strong ideas himself. He was always very careful not to be an extremist on any view or policy. He was the ultimate politician with heart who hated confrontation. Not being able to fully know the man behind the myth is what makes him a legend. This book explains why we are not able to know more about him as well as his strained relationship with Jefferson. The two men could not be more opposite in everything. Fantastic biographical book. Also recommended would be 1776, it goes more in depth as to his decisions or lack thereof on the battlefield during the revolutionary war. I unfortunately read 1776 first and then this one, i would recommend it the other way around.… (more)
LibraryThing member glade1
I realized as I read this book how little I actually knew about George Washington. I feel this book gave me a good overview of his life. He played a lot of things close to his chest, and Martha destroyed all their correspondence when he died, so it still seems hard to really know him, but I think this author makes some pretty good guesses. How amazing to be front and center in such an important time, and of course he knew it so he worked hard to cultivate his personality and memory, but not in the way a lot of folks would have - he was quite wise with most of his decisions. Very good read.… (more)


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