His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis

His Excellency: George Washington is the second biography I read about our nation’s first president.  The book, composed by historian Joseph Ellis, was published in 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf.  The manuscript, weighting in at 320 pages, is popular due to its conciseness.  As of the date I compose this review, the website www.goodreads.com lists His Excellency as the ninth best biography on an American president.  Joseph Ellis is the author of nine books, most recently, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789.

Ellis completed his undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.  He attended Yale University earning a Masters, followed by a Ph.D. in 1969.  Ellis lectured at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, after stints at the United States Military Academy and Mount Holyoke College.  The author primarily focuses on the revolutionary war period with books about Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.  Ellis’s book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and American Sphinx, about Thomas Jefferson, claimed a National Book Award.

Ellis offers multiple reasons for aspiring to write about Washington in the preface to His Excellency.  Ellis grew up within ten miles of Mount Vernon, unable to get away from the footsteps of the first president.  The author desired to write a compact, but comprehensive book on Washington.  Ellis accomplished this difficult task- the book can easily be read in a week to ten days.  A second goal was to examine Washington’s views on slavery and Native Americans.

His Excellency: George Washington consists of seven chapters- each taking on a significant portion of Washington’s life.  The largest chapter focuses on Washington as president- the second lengthiest on his time as Commander-in-Chief of the colonial army.  Ellis pens drawn-out chapters, but organizes them into smaller sub-sections making it easy for a reader to take a quick break.  One aspect of Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow, (link to my review) that accelerated my reading pace was numerous 10-12 page chapters each building to a crescendo!  Thankfully, Ellis splits the chapters into smaller segments making the book eminently readable.

His Excellency: George Washington is the first book I read by Joseph Ellis leading to uncertainty of what to expect.  Unfortunately, the book got off to a rocky start for me.  Since His Excellency is the second book I read on Washington, the first being Washington: A Life, I found myself comparing the authors’ writing styles.  Ellis does not have the feeling of a polished academic, as does Chernow, which was initially off putting.  I navigated the first two chapters getting accustomed to the authors’ style of writing.  However, by chapter three- Ellis hit his stride.  The writer presents a conversation about Washington’s life instead of a lecture which facilitates a better reading experience for the lay history student.

The chapter on Washington as the young country’s first president is excellent.  Ellis cites specific examples of achievements during each term of Washington’s presidency.  The descriptions offered make the book go from simply a good read, to an excellent tome on Washington.  I believe that Ellis balances the troubling political waters Washington faced, his expansion of presidential power, and ongoing battles with political opponents fairly.  He does not uplift Washington to hero status, but instead offers the reader accurate and vivid examples of the period.

Ellis met his secondary goal of bringing Washington’s 18th century slavery and Indian bias into proper perspective for a 20th century reader.  The author describes the evolution of the Virginian’s theories on the enslavement of his fellow man.  Ellis does not excuse this founding father, who fought the British for freedom from a King, for owning slaves.  Ellis provides a solid depiction of Washington’s early encounters with Native Americans.  Washington genuinely desired to deal with Indian tribes on an equal footing as partners on the continent.

My conclusion on His Excellency: George Washington– it is an excellent book for a person who wants to learn about George Washington without reading more than 400 pages or multi-volume sets.  Ellis provides the same high level details as Chernow and does a fine job of painting the story of a great, yet flawed man.  The book does not have an academic feel, but more of a folksy charm making it likeable and readable.  I would recommend it as an entry level book on our first president.

Rating: 4 Stars


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