His Excllency

I recently enjoyed reading His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis.  It was recommended to me by my good friend John.  I don’t know if the tradition will continue, but the last two years I’ve read two presidential biographies about our Founding Fathers sometime around Independence Day.  Last year, it was John Adams by David McCullough.

While overall I didn’t enjoy Ellis’ writing style as much as I enjoy McCullough’s, the book was nonetheless well-researched, comprehensive, and expertly assembled.  Many people may not know this, but there’s relatively little records of Washington’s personal thoughts – he was often as reserved in his diaries as he was in his public life.  Washington had legendary self-control, and used that to his advantage, often being able to be seen as “above the fray.”

But his reservation and self-control, when it came to his personal correspondence and diaries, make it extremely difficult to get a comprehensive idea of Washington’s personality and who he really was.  Ellis does an excellent job illuminating parts of Washington’s character that basic history books can’t – or don’t – fully explain.

I found Ellis’ description of Washington’s internal conflict over slavery particularly intriguing.  Washington came to the realization that slavery was economically and morally unviable in his middle ages, but waited until his death to free them completely in his will.  Because of various other moral and economic concerns, namely the desire not to break up families, and his concern for the long-term economic prospects of Mount Vernon, he and his slaves found themselves in a mutually-dependent relationship until he freed them at his death.

While Ellis’ writing was a little more challenging to read, I did appreciate two things in particular.  First, he often dove deep into the motivations and intentions of the personalities of the book.  This helped to explain why the figures in the book said/wrote/did certain things, instead of just stating that they said/wrote/did those things.  Secondly, throughout the book Ellis would posit a question, then list the various explanations or answers, a technique I found helpful.

If you’re looking to expand your knowledge about this country’s founding and one of its most influential figures, I’d highly recommend you look into His Excellency: George Washington.

What’s your favorite biography you’ve ever read?