By Joseph J. Ellis
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400040315, 352pp.)
Publication Date: October 26, 2004
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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 chisled 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.
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.
“Mr. Ellis gives us a succinct character study while drawing on his extensive knowledge of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary history to strip away the accretions of myth and contemporary extemporizing that have grown up around his subject. … 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. . . His Excellency is a lucid, often shrewd take on the man Mr. Ellis calls the "primus inter pares, the Foundingest Father of them all." And it does so with admirable grace and wit.” —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“Ellis [writes] with clarity and grace. He has a gift for reaching a broad public with substantive books on serious subjects. In [His Excellency], he has done it again. This is an important and challenging work: beautifully written, lively, serious, and engaging… He has given us a book that will inspire other research, it will deepen our understanding of its subject.” —David Hackett Fischer, Boston Sunday Globe
“[Ellis’s] probing biographies remain some of the most psychologically penetrating portraits of the Founding Fathers that we have. [His Excellency] is full of subtle inroads into the man Ellis calls the “most notorious model of self-control in all of American history, the original marble man.”–Richard Lacayo, Time
“Ellis skillfully uncomplicates many convoluted subjects, including the real and passionate Washington and the myths constructed around him, the economic and social forces driving him and his fellow revolutionaries…. A distinguished addition.” —Celia McGee, Daily News