His Excellency: George Washington
Joseph J. Ellis
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To this landmark biography of our first president, Joseph J. Ellis brings the exacting scholarship, shrewd analysis, and lyric prose that have made him one of the premier historians of the Revolutionary era. Training his lens on a figure who sometimes seems as remote as his effigy on Mount Rushmore, Ellis assesses George Washington as a military and political leader and a man whose “statue-like solidity” concealed volcanic energies and emotions.
Here is the impetuous young officer whose miraculous survival in combat half-convinced him that he could not be killed. Here is the free-spending landowner whose debts to English merchants instilled him with a prickly resentment of imperial power. We see the general who lost more battles than he won and the reluctant president who tried to float above the partisan feuding of his cabinet. His Excellency is a magnificent work, indispensable to an understanding not only of its subject but also of the nation he brought into being.
distinction between their criticism of the Washington administration and of Washington himself, thereby avoiding the politically insurmountable task of taking on the most beloved and respected hero of the age.48 Washington danced his own minuet throughout the summer of 1792, hoping against hope that it would carry him southward toward Mount Vernon. Ironically, it was Jefferson who most candidly informed him that the sectional tensions created by Virginia’s reaction to the Hamiltonian program
trusted aide-de-camp, apprised him of the hostile reaction, Washington expressed his regrets for the indiscretion: “I will endeavor at a reformation, as I can assure you my dear Reed that I wish to walk in such a Line as will give most general Satisfaction.” By nature a reserved and self-contained personality, Washington was discovering that his new public obligation to be all things to all men required him to suppress even the smallest residue of private opinion that might otherwise leak out.
exposure to scenes of mass suffering that, as he put it, “will not be credited but by those who have been spectators.” Nearly a century later, when Abraham Lincoln referred in his first inaugural to those “mystic chords of memory” that linked his Civil War generation with those predecessors who had created the American republic, the haunting imagery suggested a shared political idea. Washington’s memory was less mystic but equally haunting; it was men shedding blood.5 The men shedding most of
Franklin lampooned the hereditary requirement by calculating that the amount of patriotic blood passed on would be infinitesimally small after two centuries of primogeniture, so why not reverse the hereditary principle by designating ancestors rather than descendants, preferably mothers rather than fathers, who probably were more responsible for instilling patriotism in their sons than anyone else?23 Washington was initially tone-deaf to these criticisms, in part because he shared the fraternal
executive leadership, especially when he enjoyed capable surrogates brimming over with energy and ambition. The first battle he evaded focused on the shape and powers of the federal courts. The Constitution offered even less guidance on the judiciary than it did on the executive branch. And once again the studied ambiguity reflected the widespread apprehension toward any menacing projection of federal power that upset the compromise between state and federal sovereignty. Washington personally