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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004 02:54 am

The first George W.

His Excellency: George Washington By Joseph J. Ellis, Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95

First initial, last name. More than six feet tall. In his early 20s he made a name for himself in battle, but accounts of his heroism would later be questioned. Well-born, he nevertheless increased his fortune mightily by marrying an extremely wealthy widow. If we were doing a crossword puzzle, you might be counting on your fingers to figure out how many letters are in "J. Kerry." Imagine your surprise on finding that the puzzle calls not for six letters but for 11 and that the answer is "G. Washington."

The life of George Washington has presented something of a puzzle to those who would decode it. Several major biographies have been penned, but until now no biographer has had access to the newly cataloged Washington papers at the University of Virginia. As a historian and author who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Joseph J. Ellis brings the right credentials to the task. His style is erudite -- that he has managed the task in a brief 300 pages gives the biography a chance of being widely read by those who, like me, find 800-page historical tomes somewhat daunting. His Excellency gave me an appreciation not only for the "father of our country" but also for the process by which we became a country at all. And though it may sound hyperbolic, I came away convinced that without Washington, we might all still be British subjects. If ever there was an example of how one man can shape the world, the first George W. is it.

Ellis begins by debunking what we all thought we knew about the man: the cherry tree, the dollar across the Potomac, the wooden dentures -- myths one and all. It seems odd that the persona of the man who "could not tell a lie" is founded, if not on lies, certainly on fabrications. The real George Washington was the fourth generation of his family to be born on this continent, in Virginia's Westmoreland County, in 1732. His father died when he was 11, leaving a wife, seven children, 10,000 acres, and 49 slaves. George was not the eldest, and so he sought his fortune in the military. He was, in fact, the man sent by Britain to the Ohio Country to tell the French to shove off. When they didn't, he became the head of the Virginia Regiment and led troops at Fort Necessity in the French and Indian War. Though he surrendered his troops (on July 4, 1754), he returned home something of a hero. Virginians loved him most because the French hated him so much. (Think about that the next time you eat a "freedom fry.")

In 1758 he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow with a 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. He would never father children of his own. Her money and the death of his older brother opened the door for his second career as the master of his estate, Mount Vernon. By the time the American Revolution had started to brew, Washington was a member of the upper echelon of Virginia society. With his military background, he was the major player in the War for Independence. Ellis devotes nearly half of his book to the war, and rightly so. It shaped a nation, and it shaped Washington. He was not a particularly skilled commander, but providence and steadfastness were on his side. When he emerged the victor, a man called "His Excellency" by his fellow officers and troops, he chose to retire. Unlike Cromwell and Napoleon, he understood the core concept of a republic: that its legitimate power comes from the consent of the public.

When the dust settled, Washington was called to the presidency. He honestly did not want to go, but he did. He would have preferred life at Mount Vernon but knew that in lesser hands, the fledgling government might not fly. His tenets -- independence abroad and unity at home -- served the new country well. He would retire just four years before he died in 1799, less than three weeks before the dawn of the new century.

The current president, the next president, and all future presidents would do well to read this account of a man whose gift was not only to unite those longing for liberty but also to lead them in building a place where it would flourish.

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