Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Born on July 18, 1943 in Washington, D.C., the historian and professor of History at Mount Holyoke College Joseph J. Ellis is well known for focusing his writing on the founding fathers and the federalist and the revolutionary periods. In addition to crafting His Excellency: George Washington, the Mount Holyoke College History professor is also responsible for writing Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. In respect to Founding Brothers, this publication earned Ellis the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History. Relatively speaking, the author’s accomplishments speak for themselves. As the reader progresses through Ellis’ writing, it should become evident the author has primarily focused on Washington’s military exploits during the French and Indian War, his leadership in during the American Revolution, and his presidency. It should be noted there was no presidential guidebook helping Washington make decisions as the first president of the United States. Since he was the first president, Washington was setting the tone for the men which followed in his footsteps.

In reviewing more than 30 years of Washington as a key figure in American history, Ellis successfully painted a vivid portrait of the man and remained true to the historical big picture. Ellis did not allow personal sentiment to cloud his work. From the way in which Ellis frames his narrative, it suggests the Mount Holyoke College history professor believes Washington’s early years were forged by two distinct opposing forces. The first, coming from the East, revolved around the respectful world of British patronage and hierarchy. There is a modicum of evidence which indicates Washington, despite having connections with a well-established Fairfax family, unsuccessfully sought advancement within the British military. The second, Westerly bound, saw Washington attain experiences on the Ohio frontier. If the reader is familiar with Washington’s exploits on the Ohio frontier, it would be known that the Bridges Creek born revolutionary leader undertook and successfully carried out several surveying expeditions and military campaigns against both the French and the Indians. Going to war rather than to college, argues Ellis, scarred and protected Washington against the possibility of becoming idealistic in his approach to life.

The route Washington took to revolution was not the yellow brick road of early American history. Even though it was arduous, history shows he stayed the course.  “… an almost textbook example of the Radical Whig ideology that historians have made the central feature of scholarship on the American Revolution for the past forty years,”[1] Ellis indicates “historians have discovered a cluster of ideas about the irreconcilable tension between liberty and power that English dissenters, called ‘the Country Party,’ hurled at the Handoverian court and the inordinately long-standing ministry of Robert Walpole in the middle third of the eighteenth century.”[2] Ellis writes of Washington and the beginning of his revolutionary journey. Washington, according to Ellis, was convinced by first-hand experiences the British were intended to enslave the colonies. The imperial policies which Washington saw implemented swayed his view of the British because it was these policies which not only limited colonist’s ability to advance within British society, it restricted his prized sovereignty. Ellis suggests, in Washington’s quest of a much-coveted commission in the British army, full economic independence from British consignment merchants, he was unsuccessful in his pursuit, subsequently becoming not only helpless but dependent.

“If Washington was playing hide-and seek within himself on the question of his own ambition,”[3] Ellis wrote. Washington waged a successful campaign of what Ellis refers to as being a “postured reticence”[4] in his desire to lead the Continental Army, consequently entwining his destiny with that of what would be a new nation. As the commanding officer of the Continental Army, Washington is referenced as “His Excellency.” Washington, from his military background, understood a militia would be ineffective against the well trained British regular army. The British Empire had a professional standing army. The colonists relied up on a militia. From Washington’s perspective, victory could only be achieved with a regular army of paid professionals. Washington’s victory against the British was no small achievement. Even though it was not in keeping with his personality, Washington applied the Fabian strategy “War of Posts” to prolong the struggle. This stratagem enabled him to preserve what was at least a resemblance of a professional standing army in the field. In perhaps what is considered one of the most decisive move of the conflict, Ellis intimates, Washington had the foresight to inoculate his army against smallpox infection. Washington risked everything on a slim chance of American independence.

Like Alexander Hamilton, Washington was a Federalist. He fervently believed in a strong centralized federal government. Washington, in his zeal to see his vision come to pass, challenged the apparent prejudice which opposed the creation of a consolidated governance. The opposition to what Washington proposed failed to recognise the importance of establishing a single unified country under a united authority. It is evident, based on what Ellis wrote of Washington, he believed a country is only as strong as its government. Unlike certain other presidents, Washington endeavoured to surround himself with the best men available. He did not staff a cabinet with people incapable of doing their respective jobs. Even though there are currently sixteen cabinet positions, the one which Washington assembled consisted of only four positions: Secretary of State,[5] Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, and the Attorney General. These positions were filled by Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph. In respect to his presidential leadership style, Washington applied a “leading by listening.”[6] As opposed to that which has been seen many times since Washington’s presidency, there is a clear indication he selected a cautious self-restrained implementation of the executive powers which the position afforded him. Considering the opposition to a centralised government, Washington’s methodology seems prudent.


[1] Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 62.

[2] Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington, p. 62.

[3] Ibid, p. 71.

[4] Ibid, p. 70.

[5] It should be noted John Jay was Secretary of State from Sept. 26, 1789 – March 22, 1970.

[6] Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington, p. 175.

His Excellency: George Washington
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Shain E. Thomas, a contributor to the Handbook of Texas Online, is a University of North Texas graduate student majoring in Library Information Science.


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