*****His Excellency: George Washington

George Washington

General George Washington at Trenton by John Trumbull

By Joseph J. Ellis–Historical figures go in and out of fashion like men’s wide lapels, and I must have had my little exposure to George Washington during one of his dreary periods, because, well, yawn. This book was a revelation. It presents Washington in a balanced light, including his flaws, though the author is obviously a fan. With two Pulitzers to his credit (for Founding Brothers and American Sphinx, a biography of Thomas Jefferson), Ellis knows his early American history. I had a timely trip to nearby Monmouth Battlefield—where “Molly Pitcher” pitched in—which made the Revolutionary War period of Washington’s career come further alive.

Because mammoth biographies of Washington already exist, and his papers and letters have been preserved and cataloged, “The great American patriarch sits squarely in front of us: vulnerable, exposed, even talkative at last.” Thus Ellis’s purposes were to create a biography of modest size (275 pages), not another in an “endless row of verbal coffins,” and to put Washington in clearer context with respect to revolutionary ideology, social and economic forces, the political and military strategic options of 1776, slavery, and the fate of the Indians. The result is an eminently readable story that I expect will provide every reader with new insights about the supremely human Father of our country.