40 pages 1 hour read

Joseph J. Ellis

His Excellency: George Washington

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Historian Joseph J. Ellis was fascinated by George Washington ever since Ellis’ boyhood in Alexandria, Virginia, where Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, is located and his historical presence was strongly felt. By the time Ellis wrote His Excellency: George Washington in 2004, he had already produced several popular books about early American history. His Excellency is a more intimate biography of Washington than many previously written, focusing as much on the subject’s character as on his career. Ellis wished to address what he terms our “Patriarchal Problem” with Washington, a tendency to split him into cartoon images of saintly hero or imperialistic villain. His Excellency aims at creating a more balanced image of our first president.

Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1732, Washington receives a rudimentary education and is raised by his older half-brother Lawrence after the death of his father. After impressive military service in the French and Indian war, Washington marries his wife, Martha, and becomes a planter at Mount Vernon. Dismayed by the increasing British taxation of the colonists, he begins to feel, along with several fellow Virginians, that war may be the only solution to preserve Americans’ rights. Washington is elected as a member of the Continental Congress in 1774 and is chosen to lead the American colonial army against the British forces in the Revolutionary War.

During the war, Washington shifts from a conventionally aggressive strategy to a “Fabian war” relying on small “hit and run” skirmishes to weaken the enemy. This tactic plays to the strengths of his militia, which is vastly outnumbered by the more powerful British army. Despite suffering severe hardships at Valley Forge, Washington leads his troops to a decisive victory at the Battle of Yorktown, leading to British surrender. Despite his desire to retire from public life, Washington is unanimously elected as the first president of the United States of America. During his two terms, he clarifies the structure and function of the federal government, draws up legislation to protect the rights of American Indians, and enunciates a workable foreign policy for the new nation, steering it clear of further war with Great Britain.

The portrait of Washington that emerges from Ellis’ book is of a fiercely passionate, emotional man whose life goal is to temper his passions and achieve discipline and control. His legacy as president focuses on national unity, order, peace, and centralization. Although a man of strong moral convictions, he is also willing to place the need for security over his conscience. Ellis clarifies Washington’s attitude toward slavery, an institution toward which he was morally opposed but which he regarded as a necessary economic evil. After achieving financial security, Washington liberated his slaves in his will.

The book is structured in a Preface and seven amply proportioned chapters dealing with the major phases of Washington’s life: his early service in the French and Indian War; his marriage and career as a planter at Mount Vernon; his command of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War; his presidency; and his final retirement at Mount Vernon. Each chapter is further subdivided into several titled sections. Ellis’ style is popular yet serious in tone, and he frequently draws on primary sources, such as Washington’s correspondence and papers. There are also several pages of pictures in black and white comprising contemporary paintings, maps, and engravings.