His Excellency: George Washington Summary

Joseph Ellis

His Excellency: George Washington

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His Excellency: George Washington Summary

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His Excellency George Washington is a 2004 biography of George Washington written by Joseph Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. Ellis’s biography details the major chapters of Washington’s life, including his childhood and marriage, his early military service, his Revolutionary War days, and his Presidency. Ellis does not merely present the facts of Washington’s life, but conducts an in-depth examination of the man’s character, temperament, and motivations, using his personal letters and papers as a source. The book has been widely praised by critics for its attempt to humanize Washington and convey a sense of his personality.

The book consists of a prelude and seven chapters. In the first two chapters, Ellis describes Washington’s early life and the beginning of his military career. George Washington was born to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Growing up on the Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia, Washington received little formal education and was raised largely by his older half-brother Lawrence, who served as a surrogate father. Washington initially worked as a land surveyor before joining the military.

When the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, Lieutenant Colonel Washington led a military expedition to western Pennsylvania, where he helped establish Fort Necessity to defend the British army against French attacks. He also led the British and colonial forces to victory against the French at Great Meadows, with the help of Native American allies led by the Indian chief Tanacharison. Ellis discusses the killing of Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, a French officer captured by Washington’s troops, which is considered a war crime by many, since he was an unarmed prisoner of war.

Although his service in the French and Indian War solidified his military career, Washington was frustrated to discover that British officials did not recognize his contributions and refused to reward him with an officer’s appointment or land grants in the West. After the war, Washington returned to Mount Vernon where he grew tobacco and other crops. He married his wife, Martha Custis Washington, in 1758. Washington denounced British taxation of the colonies, declaring these acts to be unconstitutional. He was elected as a member of the Continental Congress in 1774, and was later chosen to lead the American colonial army against the British forces in the Revolutionary War.

The third and fourth chapters of the book focus on Washington’s trials and accomplishments as a general during the Revolutionary War. Because his troops were vastly outnumbered by the more powerful British army, Washington knew that he had to employ unusual military tactics to gain an advantage, rather than relying on conventional strategy. He often used the Fabian “hit and run” tactic, named after an ancient Roman general, which relies on small skirmishes to weaken the enemy, rather than large, conventional battles. Ellis describes some of the hardships that Washington’s army encountered at Valley Forge, and shortages in troops and funding after Saratoga. He ends Chapter Four with an account of the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, where Washington won a decisive victory that led to British surrender.

The fifth and sixth chapters of the book describe Washington’s role in establishing the fledgling American government and his subsequent Presidency. As the head of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Washington favored a strong national government and defended Congress’s right to levy taxes on states, as well as the President’s power of veto. As the very first President of the United States, Washington chose cabinet members based on merit rather than patronage, and promoted unity above all. He was strongly opposed to the idea of political parties and believed them to be vehicles for dissension and conflict, which he emphasized in his Farewell Address. Despite his wishes, however, a two-party system eventually formed due to economic and regional disputes.

Ellis describes some of the key accomplishments of Washington’s Presidency, including his successful handling of the 1793 Ghenet Affair, and his negotiation of the Jay and Pinckney treaties, which helped expand America’s western territories. He supported Alexander Hamilton’s bill to create a central banking system and opposed the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. In the seventh and last chapter of the book, Ellis clarifies Washington’s attitude towards slavery. He appeared to be ambivalent about the morality of the practice, but considered it to be a necessary economic evil. After achieving financial security, Washington liberated his slaves in his will.

His Excellency: George Washington tries to convey Washington’s personality and character, as well as his roles as a military leader and statesman. Ellis paints a portrait of America’s first President as a fiercely passionate, emotional man whose life goal is to temper his passions and achieve discipline and control. His political legacy focuses on national unity, order, peace, and centralization. Although he is a man of strong moral convictions, he is also willing to place the need for security over his conscience.