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Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency George Washington has the wonderful historical perspective I look for. I visit historic places, and I want to know more. Virginia, the birthplaces/homes of eight presidents and of the ideas that founded America always piques my curiosity. Monticello, Mt. Vernon, Montpellier…. I begin reading about the founding fathers and the Revolutionary period, and I’m ensnared. I just keep going.

Visiting Mt. Vernon, ( Washington’s magnificent home with its splendid panoramic view of the Potomac and hearing about Washington as farmer made me anxious to know more. We’ve also visited Mary Washington’s home in Fredericksburg, VA where Washington spent his youth. ( Combine these with a reading journey in David McCullough’s 1776 and impressions of Washington as he appears in other places. Even a recent trip to Portland, Maine and a visit to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s childhood home included a Washington portrait as well as a painting of Washington ascending to heaven. Why were they there? Longfellow’s grandfather served with Washington during the Revolution and admired him so.

I began His Excellency George Washington wanting to know if this GW was different from the other versions I’d read. Joseph Ellis’ book is far more than a history. It delves, based on Ellis’ study of Washington’s many papers, into the man, his personality, his motivations, and his own views of himself, his situation and his times. There are no apologies or excuses for his mistakes nor is there any downplaying of his accomplishments. That makes for an incredibly exciting and enlightening read.

We see Washington as a young man out to make his fortune. His early mistakes often turn into triumphs by circumstance. He quickly develops an ability to repress his emotions in order to achieve long-term goals. Humbled by his lack of formal education, he relies on instinct, becomes offended when he doesn’t receive his due, and seeks the power and independence fame and fortune brings even if sacrifices are to be made. Ellis introduces us to a multi-faceted individual with whom we can identify, quickly debunking the ridiculous mythical “I can never tell a lie” cherry tree chopper.

As a man, Washington’s military leadership becomes more poignant and more identifiable. What he learns from the Revolution shapes his attitude toward a strong federal government in such areas as banking and taxes, for instance, while also leaving states control of other areas.

As a president, we see him shun the trappings of a monarch and feel his way into a new kind of leader intent on guiding our country beyond its fragile infancy. He navigates his way as the legislative and judicial branches evolve. That means compromising and placing important items like slavery on the back burner for a generation because he realizes that issue will quickly destroy the country before it can even find solid footing to continue the path set in the Constitution. He sets the precedent of a president leaving office after two terms.

Ellis explains the complications of Washington’s own feelings about slavery in such a way that we can see the intricacies of the dilemma he faces. It’s interesting to follow Washington’s actions for both our government and his own private life.

Ellis’ style, though not as fluid as McCullough’s, is almost conversational as he picks his way though the dry history and shows us the human being that is often lost in our studies of Washington. Ellis even deals with Washington’s poorly fitting false teeth! The result is fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, so it is no problem to suggest it as a great book for a vacation read.

Fortunately, or unfortunately for me, I enjoyed His Excellency George Washington so much that I am placing Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson on my reading list.

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