Monday, July 18, 2016

Let's Bust a Recap : His Excellency

Happy Monday! Time to start recap-ing the books I finished on my Japan trip, and first up is His Excellency, a biography of George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis. 

His Excellency was published in 2004 by Joseph J. Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College who actually specializes in the founding fathers and the revolutionary and federalist periods. His book American Sphinx won a National Book Award, and his book Founding Brothers won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History. He's a best-selling author and after reading His Excellency, I can see why. His writing is engaging and informative, and I never reached a point reading this book where I became bored or overloaded with details.

If I could describe His Excellency in one word, it would be: balanced. I think the thing I appreciated most about this biography was the balanced approach Ellis took in writing it. There are generally two views of Washington: the first idealizing him for his role in the Revolutionary War and for the precedents he set as our nation's first president; the second demonizing him for owning slaves and stealing the country from the Native Americans. Ellis takes Washington's entire life into account and presents the facts we have about him in a matter of fact way without making assumptions or suppositions about Washington's motivations.

So what about George Washington himself? It's hard not to compare him to Theodore Roosevelt since I recently finished a pretty hefty biography on him earlier this year. The more I read about Roosevelt, the more I didn't like him. However, the more I read about Washington, the more I came to admire and respect him. There were certainly plenty of ways in which Washington and Roosevelt were similar. Take for instance this quote about Washington's personality:
"Two features of the emerging Washington personality come into focus here: first, a thin-skinned aversion to criticism, especially when the criticism questioned his personal motives, which he insisted were beyond reproach; second, a capacity to play politics effectively while claiming total disinterest in the game."
I think I could probably accurately replace Washington's name in that quote with Roosevelt's. I think it will be interesting as I continue to read up on the American presidents how many of them have these same types of personalities. I think in one sense, it's almost necessary to possess a certain amount of narcissism to aspire to the highest office in the land.

But as much as Washington was like Roosevelt in his sensitivity to criticism, he was as different from Roosevelt in his ability to lay aside his personal agenda for the greater good of the country.
"These decisions, in turn, completed his transformation into a public figure whose personal convictions must be suppressed and rendered subordinate to his higher calling as an agent of history, which in this case meant winning the war was more important than being himself."
 "If it was characteristic of him to cling tenaciously to his deepest convictions, it was also characteristic of him to let go when those convictions kept running afoul of what providence obviously intended."
There were times during the Revolutionary War and his presidency when Washington had to give up on what he firmly believed was the best course of action and defer to the opinions of other men, and to his credit, he typically did so with grace and a measure of humility that I never observed at any point in Roosevelt's life. Washington certainly learned how to choose his battles, and he was committed to preserving and nurturing this brand new baby nation that was born under his command. There were certain issues during his presidency that he felt strongly about, but understood the potential those issues had of destroying the fragile nation so he didn't press them. Washington was also known for staying silent during political conventions and carrying himself above the fray, another quality I can certainly admire.

All in all, I have to commend Washington on a life well lived and a job well done. Henry Lee wrote in Washington's eulogy that he was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Washington certainly was that. The earliest citizens of this great country loved, respected, and wouldn't even think of having anyone other than Washington as their leader, and I have to say, Washington was an excellent choice for that place in their hearts.

I also have to commend Joseph J. Ellis on producing such an excellent biography of Washington's life. I would gladly read anything else he has written, and I particularly would like to read Founding Brothers now. I would definitely give His Excellency two enthusiastic thumbs up, and I'd recommend it without any reservations. If you're looking to read a biography on George Washington, this is the one to grab.

Have you read anything on Washington or anything by Joseph J. Ellis? Did you know that whole cherry tree story is a complete myth? Never happened. Which American president are you most interested in reading about? Did this recap make you want to go read something by Joseph J. Ellis? 


  1. Girl, you are slaying your reading list! I am so proud of you. That being said, you know I'm not as much of a history or nonfiction buff as you are. So I can honestly say that I've never really considered reading a biography of a president, but if I had to choose one to read, it would either be on Washington or Lincoln. So the way that you presented this biography made me more inclined to read it than any other non-fiction book that I can think of right now. So good job! :-) you're awesome.

    1. Well, you are welcome to borrow it if you get to feeling ambitious. :)

    2. How many pages is it? And how big/little is the print? lol

    3. It's extremely manageable. My Dad has it right now, so I can't answer exactly, but I read it in about a week (if you're only counting days I actually read it--technically I started it the second week of May and completed it the last week of June so still, not that long), Oak read it in less than 3 weeks, and I wouldn't be surprised if my Dad has already finished it. He's on his way back from NC today, so I'll find out soon, I'm sure.

    4. Hmmm, maybe one day I will read it. Probably not soon, because I need to focus on writing :) Check your texts - can you remember the powers I forgot?