His Excellency George Washington

Whether or not you enjoy history, you must admit that Joseph Ellis can turn a phrase. He skillfully builds the story of George Washington's public life without the mundane details that can quickly mire a biography. Why is this noteworthy? According to Ellis:

"While there are some important exceptions to the rule, the reigning orthodoxy in the academy regards Washington as either a taboo or an inappropriate subject, and any aspiring doctoral candidate who declares an interest in, say, Washington's career as commander-in-chief, or president, has inadvertently confessed intellectual bankruptcy."

There are more detailed (i.e., long and boring) accounts of Washington's life (see James Thomas Flexner's four volume set), but Ellis is more intent on detailing the reasons for Washington's major actions than on what he had for dinner when Washington visited this tavern or that. Ellis' more approachable (i.e., shorter) biography concentrates on bringing a life to the face that we see on the dollar bill, the quarter, and the state flag. Accordingly, his depiction of Washington is reasonable and open-minded, not elevating him to superhuman status, yet not demonizing him for his indiscretions (such as owning slaves). In an era of revisionism, Ellis manages to present Washington as a human being in an evenhanded, believable manner.

While the vocabulary and structure is probably around HS senior/college freshman level, the book is still readable and interesting, even for those of us who have simple tastes. Ellis has the knack for injecting life into subjects that have been dead for centuries; in the preface, he adds a bit of his own personal experience:

"Apparently, I am one of several visitors to Mount Vernon in the 1950s who remembers Washington's dentures on display, despite the fact that, according to official records, they were never exhibited for the general public until the 1980s. The staff at Mount Vernon cannot explain the discrepancy, nor can I."

In all, Washington was a great man, and Richard Ellis' portrayal gives greater insight in the life of the man who was considered first in war and first in peace.