In the biography “His Excellency: George Washington” the author Joseph Ellis wrote a detailed look inside Washington’s life while trying to convey his thoughts. The problem Joseph Ellis had was not on how many personal journal entries he could find but what little personal mental thoughts George Washington had written about himself and what he was thinking during some of his most important historical decisions. “Although Washington is both the narrator and the central character in the story he says little about himself and nothing about what he thinks.” (Ellis, p.4)
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George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on February 22, 1732. He was born to Augustine Washington and Mary Ball. About the age of sixteen was when we start to actually see George in historical records, including his first job, surveying land for William Fairfax which took him three years to complete. During his time surveying he also bought his first plot of land with money he had saved while working. In 1752 at age twenty we see young George petitioning Governor Dinwiddie for the adjutant general post, George had two major influences in making this happen, first the passing of his older brother, which opened up a slot in the Virginia Militia, the second was William Fairfax’s influence on Governor Dinwiddie’s decision by saying that George was the right candidate for this position. Governor Dinwiddie accepted him and he was commissioned Major. The next five years of his life George led many expeditions into the Ohio Country it also served as George’s rapid introduction into the military lifestyle. “Instead of going to college, Washington went to war.” (Ellis, p.12)
In the spring of 1754 the Virginia House of Burgesses raised a regiment of three hundred men to protect settlers in the Ohio Country from the rising French threat. Washington’s mission was to safeguard a fort in the process of being built but before he had even arrived he received news from his Indian ally Tanacharison also known as “The Half King” that the French had already overtaken the fort. Washington began building a new fort in a different location and named it Fort Necessity. On May 28, 1754 Tanacharison along with a group of Indians reported a French threat coming their way. Washington gathered some men up along with the Indians and went to intercept the French force headed their way. When Washington found a smaller patrol group of about thirty they engaged in battle and Washington wrote the following account “”I there upon with conjunction with the Half-Kingâ€¦ formed a disposition to attack them on all sides, which we accordingly did and after an Engagement of abt 15 minutes we killed 10, wounded one and took 21 prisoners, amongst those that were killed was Monsieur De Jumonville, the Commander.”” (Ellis p.13) This battle has been the cause of many arguments on who actually shot the first shot in the French and Indian War. Upon Washington’s victorious return to Fort Necessity he felt that if the French were to attack he would be able to easily hold the fort until reinforcements arrived. He also knew that if he could get the Indians on his side he would have nothing to worry about. Together with Half King they brought all the Indian tribes together for an assembly on the English objective in the Ohio Country in which Washington tells them “â€¦that the sole purpose of the English military effort was “to maintain your rights to make that whole country sure to you.” He claimed that the English had no other goal than to recover for the various Indian tribes “those lands which the French had taken from them. This was a bald faced lieâ€¦.” (Ellis p.15) Washington’s lie did not work on the Indian tribes; he set himself up for failure by lying to them. In the book it sounds like he is going to turn around and backstab them as soon as they leave the assembly. His explanation seemed too good to be true and the Indians knew that he was not one hundred percent with them. The Indians left without an agreement being met. On July 3rd about eleven hundred French forces were spotted moving towards Fort Necessity. When the French arrived the battle began and was short lived, leaving Washington badly defeated with about one hundred men dead and many more hurt. The French realizing that they had pulverized their enemy called a truce. Washington’s arrogance cost him Fort Necessity but he was allowed to leave alive.
In 1758 Washington retired from the Virginia Militia. The following year he married Martha Dandridge Custis. One of the personal ordeals that Washington went through in his early marriage was going in to debt with Robert Cary a merchant from London. Robert would bring fine clothing, furniture, food along with many other fine goods from London. When Washington kept spending lavishly and started to run low on personal funds he accrued a large debt with Robert because of his spending habits. George realized that he like many other people he had become a slave indebted to the strong demanding British economy. Joseph Ellis describes Washington’s determination to alleviate his financial situation in the following statement “Despite these lingering London dependencies, his preferred course after 1765, made it clear that this was a man determined to defy the pattern of indebtedness that swallowed so much of the Virginia Planter class, and hell bent on freeing himself from the clutches of Robert Cary.” (Ellis p.53) Washington solution to his debt was to start to grow and build his own things. He started to grow wheat then he had a mill constructed to make the wheat into flour along with the mill he purchased a fishing vessel and caught his own fish and would sell it to other people locally and as far as the Caribbean. George eventually bought his own shipping boat to transport all of his corn, fish, and flour. He also started his own linen and wool lines to create clothes for himself and his slaves.
One great point that the author makes about Washington is his point of view on slavery. Even though he had slaves, in the end he did not want to own slaves but not because it was morally right but because it made financial sense. Many men came to Washington because of his ability to persuade and his high political influence throughout the government. He was given a couple different ideas and suggestions on how to start the snow ball on the emancipation process, such as recruiting them to the Continental army and at the end of the war they would receive their freedom suggested by John Laurens in 1779 or when Marquis Lafayette suggested to him to free and relocate a group of slaves and resettle them as farmers to start the emancipation process slowly and early on, Washington ignored the ideas. Washington even received a letter from a Quaker, Robert Pleasants. Robert bashed Washington for owning slaves and at the same time wanting to be the liberator of his own American people in which he wrote “”For not withstanding though art now receiving the tribute of praise from a grateful people, the time coming when all actions shall be weighed in an equal balance, and undergo an impartial explanation.” How sad it would be then to read that the great hero of American independence, “the destroyer of tyranny and oppression,” had failed the final test by holding “a number of People in absolute slavery, who were by nature equally entitled to freedom as himself.””(Pleasants, Ellis p.161) In the end Washington did not sell his slaves for many reasons including not wanting to tear families apart, many of the slaves were older and he would not be able to sell them and a large portion of the slaves did not belong to him because they were his wife’s Martha and he did not have say in what was to become of them.
The American Revolution changed George Washington forever, both for what he stood for and the respect that he gained from the whole world. Washington led many battles throughout the American Revolution whether he won or not he was still known and feared for his perseverance. Once he set out to accomplish a task he would do it to the best of his abilities. Joseph Ellis summarizes the contributions made by Washington in the American Revolution in his first paragraph of chapter three with this thorough introduction “He was forty-three years old when he rode out of Mount Vernon toward Philadelphia. He was fifty-one when he arrived back at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve, 1783 the most famous man in the worldâ€¦.the cause he headed had not only smashed two British armies and destroyed the first British Empire, it had also set in motion a political movement committed to principles that were destined to topple the monarchical and aristocratic dynasties of the Old World.” (Ellis p.73)
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After the American Revolution, Washington was chosen at the Constitutional Convention to be the first President of the United States. He was inaugurated on April 30, 1789. During Washington’s’ Presidency he accomplished many things including helping design the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches of the government, had the first presidential cabinet to help him make decisions, and he helped write the Bill of Rights Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as his Secretary of Treasury when he uncovered a huge national deficit. Washington and Hamilton created the first National Bank which was to handle all the debt that the federal government dealt with. Washington was chosen twice to be President even though he was given the chance to run more he chose not to which set the pace for every president after him. Washington died on December 14, 1799. His memory forever engrained in history.
After reading this biography I realized that the massive amount of information that author provided was informative and realistic I had a chance to see George Washington not only as the First President and American Revolutionary leader but as a person with feeling and thought. I believe the author more than provided the necessary information and proved his point which made it a great book.
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