three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
user_rating: 
0

George Washington

A-HisExcellencyUnlike our other Founding Fathers, Washington remains a more mysterious icon in American pop culture and history. His Excellency strives to uncover "the famously elusive personality of the mature man-who-became-a-monument." With a psychological tack, Ellis peels away the myth and uncovers a very human first U.S. president, one marked by integrity, vision, and passion, while guided greatly by history. Ellis argues that from the battlefield to the presidency, Washington struggled with private demons his entire life, which created an obsession with control. And this fixation, in turn, influenced Washington’s strong, centralized politics—and his fight to maneuver unruly states toward national unity and stamp lasting values on the nation.
Knopf. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1400040310

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … The resulting book yields an incisive portrait of the man, not the marble statue." Michiko Kakutani

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Ellis creates a nice balance between thoroughness and brevity. He doesn’t focus a lot on Washington’s personal life (and Washington didn’t help biographers in this regard, because he ordered most of his personal correspondence destroyed), but he does show how Washington’s personal virtues became national values." Dan Danbom

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Ellis’s interpretation of Washington is based on a good deal of hard evidence, but he no doubt would be the first to acknowledge that his speculation about the inner man is just that: speculation." Jonathan Yardley

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is an important and challenging work: beautifully written, lively, serious, and engaging, if not entirely convincing to this reader. … Once more, I found myself arguing back, about the strengths of Washington’s strategic resolve and operational flexibility, about his choice of strategies, his success in many campaigns, his open-style leadership (no obsession with control here), his relations with Congress and the states (or here), his skill as commander in chief and coalition leader (or here again), and his linkage of Revolutionary ideals to the conduct of the war." David Hackett Fischer [Fischer is the author of Washington’s Crossing—see supplemental reading]

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ellis doesn’t so much show us the warm and fuzzy side of Washington—there was none—as focus on where the qualities we find so distancing in him came from, and how they worked to his advantage over a long career that was as much the result of dumb luck as impeccable character. … He was as unapologetically avaricious as he was ambitious..." Josh Ozersky

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"He remains a champion myth-wrangler, and succeeds, as he promises, in drawing from fresh historical scholarship on Virginia and early America. … Ellis the writer may have sold us somewhat short, but Ellis the historian has delivered an edifying work." Kimberly Marlow Hartnett

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"In His Excellency Ellis is the dispassionate professional historian, but a few parts of the Washington story go beyond dispassionate analysis, almost suggesting that nature itself destined the man for greatness. … [Yet] it is not the best one-volume treatment of Washington. That distinction belongs to Richard Brookhiser’s Founding Father." Forrest McDonald

Critical Summary

Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers, views His Excellency as an extended essay on Washington’s character—and how his "marble statue" qualities served him. In his typical well-researched and engaging style, Ellis places Washington’s life within its larger context. He discusses slavery and expansion into Native American territory, concluding that economics, not morality, drove Washington’s decisions. Washington’s leadership in the Revolution, where he learned how to create a public persona, plays a pivotal role. Critics agree that Ellis adeptly dissects the young Washington. But, his psychological (and highly speculative) approach did not satisfy everyone. Combined with some minor errors and an uncharacteristic distant tone in places, this speculation took His Excellency down a notch.

Supplemental Reading

Washington’s Crossing | DAVID HACKETT FISCHER (2004): Award Star 2004 National Book Award finalist. 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2004. Fischer casts a clear eye on the crossing of the Delaware River, challenging Emmanuel Leutze’s famous painting of the subject and rethinking "one of the folk-memories most American’s share."