My appreciation for George Washington rose after reading Joseph Ellis' book His Excellency, George Washington (which was actually his title during the Revolutionary War.

The book is an attempt to reveal the character and the man of George Washington. In my opinion, it succeeded.

One of the central questions it asks we take for granted now: why didn't George Washington make himself king after the war? It's a weird question, because of course we have mythologized him so much, it would be sacrilege to consider. But some people were afraid he would attempt to do so in the early 1780s. He had an army, he was beloved, he could have turned Napoleon and made himself emperor. The book's conclusion on that question–and his decision to step down after a 2nd term–was that Washington knew that to be beloved in posterity, the key was to step down from power willingly.

He was acutely aware of his place in history. The author makes a compelling argument that Washington freed his slaves in his will because he knew that history would judge him better for it.

Combined with McCullough's 1776, which focuses on just a year of Washington's life, I feel like I have a much better knowledge of the "Father of His Country."

The Founding Fathers

Having covered Presidents 42 – 44 (Clinton, Bush, Obama) I'm going to stay at the beginning for awhile. Next up is McCullough's John Adams.

I've already read a Jefferson biography, but I might read Ellis' American Sphinx, which I understand has a decidedly critical view of our 3rd president. I've read a lot of Jefferson's writing, and wrote my senior thesis at Carleton on Meriwether Lewis, who was Jefferson's personal assistant before he was sent west. I really like Jefferson, so I'm interested in the contrary opinion. His Excellency also made me interested in Madison (President #4), a man I know almost nothing about, except that he wrote many of the Federalist Papers along with Alexander Hamilton.

Eventually I'll jump forward again to Herbert Walker Bush, Reagan, and Carter and work backwards through some of the 20th century presidents for a while. … But I'm getting ahead of myself, since that's not going to be until sometime next year.

Beyond the Presidents

I'm going to expand my presidential biographies to two non-presidents: Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. They're the only two non-presidents on our bills, so they've got to be important right? 🙂

Actually, I'm starting to realize that Hamilton has more of his fingerprints on America than any non-president. And Franklin seems just plain awesome, as big of a figure as Washington in that time. I think they will help complete this project.