Synopses & Reviews
The author of seven highly acclaimed books, Joseph J. Ellis has crafted a landmark biography that brings to life in all his complexity the most important and perhaps least understood figure in American history, George Washington. With his careful attention to detail and his lyrical prose, Ellis has set a new standard for biography.
Drawing from the newly catalogued Washington papers at the University of Virginia, Joseph Ellis paints a full portrait of George Washington's life and career from his military years through his two terms as president. Ellis illuminates the difficulties the first executive confronted as he worked to keep the emerging country united in the face of adversarial factions. He richly details Washington's private life and illustrates the ways in which it influenced his public persona. Through Ellis's artful narration, we look inside Washington's marriage and his subsequent entrance into the upper echelons of Virginia's plantation society. We come to understand that it was by managing his own large debts to British merchants that he experienced firsthand the imperiousness of the British Empire. And we watch the evolution of his attitude toward slavery, which led to his emancipating his own slaves in his will. Throughout, Ellis peels back the layers of myth and uncovers for us Washington in the context of eighteenth-century America, allowing us to comprehend the magnitude of his accomplishments and the character of his spirit and mind.
When Washington died in 1799, Ellis tells us, he was eulogized as "first in the hearts of his countrymen." Since then, however, his image has been chiseled onto Mount Rushmore and printed on the dollar bill. He is on our landscape and in our wallets but not, Ellis argues, in our hearts. Ellis strips away the ivy and legend that have grown up over the Washington statue and recovers the flesh-and-blood man in all his passionate and fully human prowess.
In the pantheon of our republic's founders, there were many outstanding individuals. And yet each of them Franklin, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison acknowledged Washington to be his superior, the only indispensable figure, the one and only "His Excellency." Both physically and politically, Washington towered over his peers for reasons this book elucidates. His Excellency is a full, glorious, and multifaceted portrait of the man behind our country's genesis, sure to become the authoritative biography of George Washington for many decades.
"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. Forecast: The 500,000 first printing seems steep but could be justified by Ellis's record and the current popularity of the Founders. First serial to American Heritage magazine." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A revisionist life of the Founding Father, motes and warts and all....Well done...though admirers of Washington may find in it more or less than they bargained for." Kirkus Reviews
"Ellis offers a unique, personal look at America's premier Founding Father....[T]his well-researched and -written book is fresh but not revisionist and will appeal to both lay readers and scholars." Library Journal
"His Excellency: George Washington immediately calls to mind, and deserves favorable comparison with, Edmund S. Morgan's Benjamin Franklin...when Ellis says that 'we do not need another epic [Washington biography], but rather a fresh portrait focused tightly on Washington's character,' he declares in effect that he is doing what Morgan did. It is a pleasure to report that he has succeeded." Jonathan Yardley, The Wahington Post
"Mr. Ellis refuses to judge Washington by 'our own superior standards of political and racial justice' but instead tries to show how Washington was seen in his day. In doing so he gives us a visceral understanding of the era in which the first President came of age, and he shows how Washington's thinking (about the war for independence, the shape of the infant nation and the emerging role of the federal government) was shaped by his own experiences as a young soldier in the French and Indian War and as a member of the Virginia planter class. The resulting book yields an incisive portrait of the man, not the marble statue." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[T]he author is unafraid to see Washington anew, without trappings and free of idolatry." Brad Hooper, Booklist
"Readers who are familiar with the vast array of writings about Washington will not find much that is new or original in Ellis's book. But they will find his usual engaging style of writing. He has a wonderful knack for summing a mass of complicated material in a few pithy sentences. With Ellis, it is not so much what is said as how it is said. His writing is forthright....[I]t is always clear, confident, colloquial, even at times conversational.And it is tinctured with just the right amount of Ellis's peculiar humor." Gordon S. Wood, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers and the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx comes a landmark biography that brings to life in all his complexity the most important and perhaps least understood figure in American history--George Washington. 16 pages of photos.
About the Author
Joseph Ellis is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers. His portrait of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, won the National Book Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and their youngest son, Alex.