“His Excellency: George Washington” is Joseph J. Ellis’ bestselling biography of our first President, published nearly a decade ago. Ellis is a well-known author and history professor focusing on the revolutionary era. He is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” and has written about Presidents Adams and Jefferson as well.
Among the nine biographies of George Washington currently in my library (counting each of Flexner’s volumes individually), Ellis’ biography on Washington has been much more widely reviewed, and presumably read, than any of the others. Whether or not coincidental, it is also by a fair stretch the shortest book of the group. But since quality and quantity are often unrelated, my expectations for the book were not the least bit diminished by its relative brevity.
Having read “His Excellency: George Washington” so soon after completing Flexner’s more thorough series on Washington may have disadvantaged my ability to consider Ellis’ work entirely free of external influences, but also provided me a more enlightened frame of reference within which to absorb, enjoy and evaluate Ellis’ biography (and the others on Washington yet to come).
Reviews of Ellis’ book ubiquitously applaud the biography as an excellent introduction to Washington and a terrific primer for the casual reader who may not be interested in a doctoral-level dissection of the man. On that point, I agree whole-heartedly. For someone unfamiliar with Washington’s life (or for whom the passage of time has rendered high school American history a faded blur) this biography will, in the shortest reasonable time, well-familiarize the reader with Washington’s life and reinforce the dramatic impact he had on his emerging nation.
Ellis admitted in the earliest pages of the book that he didn’t intend to compete with authors before him who produced multi-volume tomes but, instead, wanted to paint a “fresh portrait focused tightly on Washington’s character.” While he was successful in avoiding a head-to-head challenge on the first point, I’m not so certain he fully met his objective on the second.
Whether Ellis added new depth or dimension to Washington’s character depends on your perspective. For the casual reader, this book clearly brings color and charm to the generic, impassive marble statue of Washington that is most widely recognized. However, compared to the vibrant description of Washington provided by Flexner three decades earlier, it is unclear Ellis goes any further (but how can you in 1/7th the space?) Where Flexner often seemed to put you “in Washington’s head”, Ellis more often provided the reader with “the fly on the wall” status, observing history from across the room.
The real value in Ellis’ book in my view is not that he uncovered new dimensions of Washington’s personality or moral principles; although this seems to have been his goal, I remain unconvinced. What is far more remarkable is that he was able to dexterously chronicle Washington’s two terms as President – replete with foreign threats and intrigue, domestic disharmony and polarization, intra-Cabinet malevolence and more – in a mere 60 or so pages. There can be great benefit in cutting to the chase where incremental detail provides no additional clarity or insight and Ellis executed this brilliantly.
Far from just summarizing the major events of the day in hit-and-run fashion, Ellis also provided insightful and thought-provoking conclusions relating to Washington’s evolution (maturation?) as a person and a leader, the fundamental principles that guided him to “True north” throughout his life, and how he recognized his flaws and used them (whether knowingly or not) to his advantage. As expected, Ellis also nicely weaves throughout the book his own observations and themes about the impact of Washington’s actions on his legacy, the future of the Presidency and the course of American history.
Overall, “His Excellency: George Washington” presents a fairly straightforward proposition: for someone committed to getting to know Washington but less interested in sitting on his shoulder (or getting inside his head) for a period of time, this biography is more than sufficient and, at times, excellent. You occasionally feel like you’re reading the Cliff’s Notes rather than the work of art itself (particularly relating to many of his extremely interesting personal and professional relationships), but you don’t really mind.
However, if what you really want to see is the high resolution photo of Washington’s life with a panoply of rich colors and billions of pixels, you will find that Ellis’ work has cropped the photo a bit and left what remains just a bit grainy. Perhaps one of the next three biographies on Washington I’ll be reading (by Chernow, Smith and Ferling) will provide the perfect balance of length and luminosity?
Overall rating: 4 stars