Joseph J. Ellis is professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He has authored several books on American history with special attention given to the founding of the United States. He received a Pulitzer prize for his work, Founding Brothers.
Ellis’ biography of Washington is a little different from the other biographies I have read on the first president of the United States. The main reason being that Ellis devotes a good portion of his book to Washington’s military service during the French-Indian War as well as his service in the Revolutionary War. Other biographies, as Ellis even points out, focus on Washington’s presidency.
One of the major drawbacks to Ellis’ work however is that he likes to pontificate about what went on behind the scenes, or in Washington’s mind. While he may have good reason for believing that, for example, Washington was not speaking honestly at some point or another, he provides no evidence to support such a claim. Perhaps, Ellis is correct in his suggestions to his readers, but a little more argumentation would go a long way. As one of my favorite quotes to recite in regards to scholarship says, “We can only go as far as the evidence takes us.” And I would add, “and no further.” Thank you Martin Noth for that little tid-bit.
Ellis’ organization of the book is rather straight forward and logical. There are few points where the reader might say, “Why did he put this information here?” His organization is thoughtful and helpful to the reader. The placement of chapter divisions puts the events firmly into the mind of the reader. While some may find this to be a small matter, I actually find it quite helpful because it simply helps the reader maintain, as well as categorize, the information he is taking in.
One interesting aspect of the work is Ellis’ focus on Washington’s views on slavery. It seems as though he is trying to reconcile Washington’s reasons for freeing his slaves upon his death; as stipulated by his will. However, throughout his life he maintained the slaves even though they were costing his plantation money. Ellis goes to great lengths to show Washington’s character in not wanting to sell the slaves for profit because this would result in the break up of families. Yet, Washington continued to view his slaves as his property. This side-story in the larger Washington narrative provides the reader with Ellis’ ability to be a fine historical scholar. At this point Ellis seems to only go as far as the evidence takes him, and therefore probably gives the reader the most accurate representation of history in his entire work (besides the mere facts).
Overall, if someone were to ask me what biography to read of George Washington, I would have to say His Excellency. Albeit, only the second biography I have read of Washington. Tolle Lege!