His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ellis gives us a thoroughly enjoyable, readable, and interesting biography of Washington. It dispels many of the myths and legends, and gives us a more accurate – and thereby more heroic – picture of the truly indispensable man. Of all the founding fathers, Washington is the one who I believe was indispensable. Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and others are incredibly important and their contributions crucial to this nation’s founding and its prosperity. But Washington, from his victories on the battlefield to his political leadership, was a major part of things from the beginning to the end of the revolutionary era. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else leading the Continental Army to its improbable victory. It’s also hard to see who else could have led the country in its first eight years: keeping the country out of European wars and focused on its own domestic development into a nation. His deliberate decision to walk away from power not once, not twice, but thrice is beyond historical precedent. Washington was a man of powerful ambitions and a clear vision of what the United States need to become – but he was also a man of deep convictions and virtue and knew when to step aside.
Ellis does a masterful job of showing us Washington’s ineluctable role in the American Revolution and founding. Much of this is familiar to students’ of American History but brought together with Ellis’s straightforward prose and his insight into Washington’s motivations, development, and deliberation bring Washington into view in way that shows him to be more interesting and more important than we might remember from the textbooks.
I knew, as anyone schooled in America should know, that Washington freed his slaves upon his death. Ellis, though, shows how Washington’s views on this troubling aspect of our history evolved from acceptance to ambivalence to abomination. He unfortunately missed a few opportunities to do more to bring about the end of slavery. Washington’s pragmatism and realism prevented him from acting more directly on the matter (believing as he did that such moves would likely break apart the nascent nation), but his desire to see the end of slavery was real and not merely a deathbed after thought.
I did not know anything about Washington’s longstanding efforts to reach an equitable, peaceful, and fair arrangement with the native peoples of America. He clearly had deep respect for the tribes and worked hard to secure their rights to tribal lands. Sadly, his efforts failed—one wonders how different history would have played out had he been successful on this front.
I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in American History. I have already place Ellis’s author work: Founding Brothers on my to-read list.
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