In "Washington : a Life" celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation, dashing forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man, and revealing an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people.
Here we are, a paragraph in, and you've learned a lot about me, but nothing about Washington. Get ready for the Washington-ness now. There's a whole lot of info out there on George Washington, and a surprising amount of it comes directly from him. Did you know that he carefully kept and organized all his papers over pretty much his entire life so that it would be there for posterity? That he was, in fact, very aware of how every move he made would be evaluated by history? That he had a hot temper that he worked to control, and that this is the reason he was known for being so stoic (it was either that or blow his top)? That he was effusively affectionate in writing with a few different women, but Martha wasn't one of them? If so, you might not need to read this book, but I didn't know any of that. I also didn't know that his mother was such a difficult woman (and wow, was she difficult). Or that he was really sort of a non-starter in the Revolutionary War. I mean he had his Delaware crossing, and his victory at Saratoga, but he also had some serious disasters resulting from errors in judgment at New York and Brandywine, and then he didn't have much to do once the French were involved and the war moved south. His greatest achievement during the war was really to hold together an army made of men without coats or shoes, not to minimize that accomplishment.
Although "I cannot tell a lie" comes from an apocryphal story, it turns out that Washington actually didn't lie very often. He occasionally re-framed circumstances to suit his purposes, but even that was relatively uncommon. He earned the trust he was given as the first president, and he took that trust seriously. But it wasn't a lovefest in the government - while his faith never wavered in Alexander Hamilton, he also had Secretary of War Henry Knox, who let him down during the Whiskey Rebellion. And the rest of his cabinet just got worse from there - John Adams was suspicious of Washington's motives and jealous of his adoration by the public. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison didn't think much of him and actually wrote (anonymous) diatribes against him in the press.
Washington also struggled throughout his life with his feelings on slavery and what to do about it. Sometimes it's hard not to think, "you know, if you want to free your slaves so much, go ahead and free them already!" but it would have been a revolutionary act and possibly insurmountably divisive in the climate of the time. He did leave provisions to free the ones he could (long story) in his will, which was probably the most expeditious solution and shows that he did give it quite a lot of thought.
Overall, this was an interesting and surprisingly involving listen, although I felt for a while that I was living the Revolutionary War in real time. On to John Adams!
What really makes this biography shine are perhaps lesser known aspects of Washington’s character. Such as his hero worship of his eldest brother, who tragically died at an early age. The struggles he endured as a step-father to the way-ward Jacky Custis and painstaking management of the Custis fortune. His distant relationship with his domineering and difficult mother and his internal struggle with the practice of slavery.
In fact it is the aspect of slavery which becomes really engrossing. Publically Washington was intimate friends with many well known abolitionists of his day and eventually began to publically denounce the practice of slavery, up to a point. But in private life Washington went to great lengths to keep his slaves, even going so far as to track down slaves who had fled to the British during the Revolutionary War. It is these personal aspects of Washington’s life that still have the power to make him such a complex figure in American history.
I was surprised by how little I really knew about our first President. The fairy tale legend offered to me as a child obscured the reality of the man. Like many of our presidents, Washington’s failures and struggles early in his career did not point to the greatness that was being forged. The respect and esteem held for Washington by the men under his command, even when defeated, served as the foundation on which he would lead a revolution. As Chernow expressed it, "He was that rare general who was great between battles, and not just during them."
One of the other fables swept away by Chernow is the fantasy that President Washington was greeted with the same admiration and respect George earned as General Washington. This was far from the truth, especially during President Washington’s second term. One of his most ardent and vocal critics was none other than Thomas Jefferson. Since Washington was the first president, no one knew what to expect or the political geography of the day.
Washington’s sense that virtually everything he did would be a guide for those who followed him was a gift almost beyond measure for our republic. The next thirty men that followed Washington as president limited their service to at most two terms, even though constitutionally they could continue to seek reelection. After FDR’s lengthy service and death, the nation codified Washington’s believe that no president should serve more than two terms.
Since the advent of photography, the physical price paid by our presidents has been visible to all. Only forty-four men have experienced the burden of the presidency, creating a fraternal bond understood by them alone. The experience seems to transcend party affiliation or political philosophy. Men who previously had little to no agreement with one another, gain an appreciation of the sacrifice one makes to hold this highest office. After his service as president, Thomas Jefferson said of President Washington, “Never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.”
The reality of the man who led a revolution, and taught an infant nation to walk is far greater that any legend or lore. The debt the United States, indeed the world, owes George Washington can only be measured by an understanding of distance between tyranny and freedom. In Washington: A Life, Chernow offers the perspective that makes true appreciation of President Washington, and all who follow him.
It is cliche - as every Washington biographer of the last half century claims to be doing the same thing - but Chernow does an excellent job "humanizing" Washington. And while the biography is a largely positive one, he does not shy away from exploring some of Washington's negative traits: excessive ambition, churlishness, and a real disconnect between his opinion of slavery, and how he treated them in many instances.
For me, the mark of a good biography is how it affects one emotionally after it has been read. Does it make you feel like you have experienced the person's life through the text? Or, was it more of an intellectual exercise - interesting but not deeply felt. This book will definitely leave you with the former feeling!
“In Washington: A Life” celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president.
Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull……
These are not my words, but rather the beginning of the book description at Goodreads. I agree that Chernow’s work has great depth, but Washington remains for me more a man worthy of admiration than a man for whom I can empathize. Intellectually I followed what he could have thought, but I never truly saw what he saw through his eyes. He is not dull, but still he is not someone I really know. I have learned very much about his actions and beliefs and both his successes and failures. A good biographer must present a balanced view, and Chernow clearly presents Washington’s mistakes. I appreciate this and feel I have learned so very much from the book due to the author’s prodigious study of all available source material. I do highly recommend this book.
BUT, I still have some complaints, and it is for the points stated below that I have removed one star:
The book is thorough – that can be seen as both a compliment and as a criticism, and often this depends upon the reader’s own previous knowledge. The more you know the more interesting other subjects become……I found the chapters related to the military details excessive. I felt that the text was at times repetitive, and that too many examples were cited to prove what perhaps Washington was thinking. I followed the numerous examples cited by the author and sometimes in fact came to a different conclusion! Although Chernow always states positive and negative aspects, he clearly tries to make you, the reader, accept the author’s personal view. Adjectives chosen to describe Washington’s conduct clearly express the author’s subjective point of view. Time after time, we are told that Washington “must have” thought this or that….Well, I would think, maybe! I looked at Washington’s choices throughout his life and frequently arrived at different motivations for his actions.
There are many quotes in the book. Chernow often mimics the expressions used by Washington and his contemporaries, and this makes his own text rather verbose and at times even stilted. I would have preferred a more fluid presentation. I quite simply was at times not pleased with how the author expressed himself. At times it was pompous, stiff and too adulatory.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick. The narration is clear and has an appropriate tempo for a book where the listener wants to have time to absorb the historical facts. However there is a tone of awe which unnecessarily increases the adulatory words of the author.
After reading this book, when I look at Washington what I primarily admire him for is his ability to unite people - his soldiers fighting in the French and Indian War and then the Revolutionary War, the divergent groups in the thirteen colonies each with different focal interests, then when he became president the emerging political parties, the Federalists versus the Republicans, and most importantly the Abolitionists and slave owners. He is aptly seen as one of the Founding Fathers of a nation and a government based on democracy and freedom. While the French Revolution led to a regime of terror, the American Revolution didn’t. Washington, idolized as he was, could have so easily slid into becoming a monarch himself, but he didn’t. He truly believed in democracy and freedom!
In my view, this belief in freedom leads directly to the question: how do you create a nation based on freedom if it also allows slavery? Washington’s view on slavery is ambivalent. He says one thing and he does another, over and over again. In that Washington in his will finally emancipated his own slaves, although NOT his dower slaves, the author will have us believe that Washington finally followed his moral inclination, whereas I more crassly feel he emancipated them because they had had become uneconomical, burdensome and cumbersome to manage. He also feared the possibility of slave revolts which had erupted in Haiti.
When will we be able to look at Washington freed of our need to see him as a hero and paragon of virtue. I admire what he succeeded to accomplish. I never really got to know who he was inside though. This is not necessarily a criticism of the author. Washington did not reveal his inner thoughts readily to others.
Completed May 2, 2013
Really a first class piece of writing and a pleasure to read.
We know, too, that General Washington led the American rebels against the British army and that he was America's first president, a man who very reluctantly agreed to a second term. Some of us even know that he was involved in the French and Indian War as a very young man. But that is about the limit, if not beyond the limit, for most casual observers of American history.
But how does a man become George Washington? What stroke of luck placed him in the right place at precisely the time his young country needed someone exactly like him? Would America be the country it is today if George Washington had not been there to lead the fight for its liberty and oversee its earliest days of independence? Those who wonder about such things need only pick up Ron Chernow's new Washington biography, "Washington: A Life," to find all the answers.
Put simply, Chernow's 900-page biography is as comprehensive as it is remarkably easy to read. Unlike so many history books and biographies that I have slogged through in the past, the pages and chapters fly by in this one. Mr. Chernow plucks George Washington from the mythical pages of history and turns him into a human being, a man with as many faults as qualities, a man who transformed himself into one of the most influential ever born.
Chernow's biography stresses just how private a man George Washington was despite the fact that he took great pains to document the details of his life. He was not a man given to public display of his emotions, preferring to lead with a quiet dignity and calm that never failed to impress those around him. He had a special charisma that allowed him to keep his army together under the harshest of conditions, even when it seemed the Revolutionary War might end with the American army simply walking away from the battlefield for good. He used that same charisma in his two presidential terms and had a strong hand in shaping how the United States government functions today.
But George Washington is more than a mythical hero. That he shared the faults of his time and his class cannot be argued; that he overcame them, makes him more the hero. Chernow puts the flaws into the context of Washington's times but that does little to lessen their impact on Washington's image. The reader will be particularly struck by Washington's mixed feelings about slavery. On the one hand, he had misgivings about one human being having the right to own another, and he always tried to treat his slaves with dignity and respect, perhaps even with affection in some few cases. On the other hand, he demanded that his slaves work hard on a daily basis, no matter their age or the weather conditions. Washington's income, something he was stressed about during the war and his presidency, depended on slave labor and he did not free his slaves until his wife's death. (He even purchased teeth from slaves to be used in replacement dentures for the teeth he had lost - no wood in George's mouth).
Washington was a land grabber as a young man, having recognized that the easiest source of wealth (other than marrying it, which he also managed) in this new country was land. He involved himself in a scheme to buy up the land rights, at greatly reduced prices, of his fellow French and Indian War veterans before those men could exercise them. Much of that same Western acreage would be disposed of by a desperate Washington in his later years when his service to his country deprived him of the time to properly manage his several Virginia farms.
Chernow tells the complete story. Washington's flaws are offset by the greatness of his vision, and the reader cannot help but come away from the book with the conviction that things would have been greatly different for America if there had never been a Virginian by the name of George Washington. Without Washington, the Revolutionary War might not have been won, and even if it had been, the government we know today would probably be a very different one without having had his guiding hand at critical early moments in its history.
"Washington: A Life" tells a fascinating story in easily read prose; readers should not be put off by its length. The best praise I can give a book of this type is that it makes me want to read more about the period and some of the other men involved. That is certainly the case with "Washington: A Life."
Rated at: 5.0
Finished - loved it and learned alot about him, our country and early growing pains of our presidency. Recommended.
The name George Washington conjures up many images for Americans – heroic general, father of the nation, impeccable honesty, stoic demeanor, first president. However, there was much more to this complicated man. He was also a land speculator, elegant dancer, slaveholder, fiery taskmaster and someone who would hold a grudge to his grave. Washington was a far more complex man than what you learned in school…and no, he never had wooden teeth!
“By the time of his death, Washington had poured his last ounce of passion into the creation of his country. Never a perfect man, he always had a normal quota of human frailty, including a craving for money, status, and fame. Ambitious and self-promoting in his formative years, he had remained a tightfisted, sharp-elbowed businessman and a hard-driving slave master. But over the years, this man of deep emotions and strong opinions had learned to subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause, evolving into a statesman with a prodigious mastery of political skills and an unwavering sense of America’s future greatness. In the things that matter most for his country, he had shown himself capable of constant growth and self-improvement.”-page 812.
George Washington has had literally thousands of biographies written about him in the more than two hundred years since his death. What Ron Chernow delivers is a highly readable single-volume account of who Washington was, rather than just what he did. The emphasis of Washington: A Life is really more about the person who became the father of a nation instead of a dull rundown of his accomplishments. Chernow brings us into the troubled boyhood and arrogant early adulthood that defined Washington’s early life and could have left him out of the history books altogether. What makes Chernow’s biography something better is it doesn’t whitewash Washington’s foibles – it embraces them – showing how he was able to rise above his doubts and weaknesses and help bring the world into a new age.
And foibles Washington had. Washington: A Life doesn’t pull any punches when Chernow hammers him for his hypocritical – at times brutal – treatment of his own slaves while fighting for the inalienable rights of other Americans. Washington even admitted to the hope that it was an institution that would “quietly fade away” in the hands of future generations. Still, Chernow places Washington’s questionable personal positions in context – neither sugar-coating them nor over-emphasizing them – next to his astounding accomplishments. Between single-handedly holding the Continental Army together, being the rock the Constitutional Convention presided around and his unprecedented presidency, Washington’s contributions to human history are covered in depth.
Just like the man, Washington: A Life is not perfect. Chernow spends too much time grinding through Washington’s preoccupation on the finest clothes and furnishings – to the point that is became distracting later in the book. And while Chernow does a splendid job documenting the schoolyard policy squabbles in Washington’s presidential administration, the text is light on the events that were driving those decisions, especially in Washington’s second term. When documenting the final years of Washington’s presidency, Chernow seems more interested in Washington’s troubles with his household staff than with his efforts to avert another war with England.
In spite of those shortcomings, Washington: A Life certainly delivers on its promise to present a complete portrayal of the most beloved founding father – warts and all. Chernow’s approach succeeds on all fronts and makes Washington more accessible than any biography before it. If you are going to read about the American Revolution or the development of the presidency, Washington: A Life is an excellent place to begin.
His contribution can actually be measured, but probably not equalled. A sturdy man who didn't liked to be touched would stand tall in the face of almost any challenge to contribute to his community. The depth can be a little tedious but when you are in the depths of Washington's life it all seems relevant.
I have not read other Bio's of Washington, so I can not weigh the book against other biographers.
The insight into Washington's own words from his letters illuminates the man in the portraits.
Chernow tells a complete story of an immense life. It was fun to observe the life of the American saint and the characters who contributed to the a time in history of such immense character. 800+ pages make it a true commitment and if I never read another book on (The General) I think this Bio will suffice as solid basis on the subject.
Great fun fact: Ron Chernow credits Washington with the development of the American Mule. Add husbandry to the long list of accomplishments...
“Washington: A Life” would be a perfect book for a history or biography buff.
Also, I'm more than a tad amused at the following comment in a previous review: "Well written generally, but I back off from a full five star rating because he uses CONTRACTIONS. I can't stand a solid serious work that uses contractions." Hopefully this doesn't get flagged, but that's stupidity in action (in the event that it does happen, how about we just not say things that are clearly nothing other than stupid?). Last I checked, "can't" is a contraction, and therefore I cannot stand your solid serious review (also "a lot" is two words, not one). Though I myself have no qualms about the use of contractions as they're part of the language.
After reading the Washington and Hamilton biographies, however, I find it's hard to maintain a real positive view of Messrs. Adams and Jefferson. Especially Adams.
Not much time was spent on GW's early years, and very soon we learn of George's adventures as a very young officer in the militia, teamed with England in the French and Indian War. As revolution began to simmer in the colonies, Washington's role was primarily military, and the events that unfolded during those years dealing with the Declaration and Constitution were mainly left to others. Though Washington attended the initial Congressional sessions and expressed his viewpoints, he was never a confident orator and his lack of education led many of his founding brothers to pay him less attention. So Chernow's focus during those years deals more with the eight years (yes, EIGHT years) that he led his rag tag army against the British; in the background we are given snippets of events in Philadelphia. And maybe rag-tag is too kind a descriptor. This was an army that was not only poorly clothed but ill-fed as well. Often local farmers sold their produce and livestock to the better financed British. Then there was the issue of many American troops returning to their families every December 31 as annual commitments expired. Washington's "army" would shrink to a few thousand. Washington lost a number of battles - he was not surrounded by an experienced military-educated team of officers and staff, but he kept the army together. Eventually the Brits made the Big Mistake at Yorktown, and with the very timely help of the French, the Revolutionary War was over. My major disappointment with this portion of the book was that Chernow elected not to use maps. There were several battles described in some detail which would have been much easier to visualize with a single map.
Five years later Washington was our first President. He was unopposed, and his intention was to serve one term, perhaps less if possible. He yearned to retire to Mt. Vernon but did not have that opportunity for another eight years. There were two interesting learnings for me in this section of the book. The first is that Washington as President was now in a position to set precedent since not every detail of governing was clearly defined in the founding documents. Many of those issues dealt with the specific duties o the Executive and Legislative branches. The second was the birth o political parties, each with different viewpoints on the kind of country America was to become. For example, while Washington (and Hamilton) believed in a strong executive role, others felt it would be too easy for the United States to morph into a monarchy-like government too reminiscent of the British royatly from whom we had just separated.. This section of the book made clear that while many of our forefathers may have been "founding brothers" they did not always get along all that well and at various points in our early history, relationships broke off and were never repaired. It is interesting to see so many parallels with governing the US in 2015.
In addition to the War years and the first Presidency years, the book covers a lot of other ground central to Washington's life. All of it is very important and I would not want any of the subjects deleted. But I think most could have been abbreviated. These include the ongoing changes at Mount Vernon over the years from crop selection to building additions to draperies, the relationship with George's mother, his dental problems, all of the portraits he sat for, slavery, George's eye for the ladies, and his delightful relationship with Lafayette. The material dealing with slavery alone could have yielded a separate book. As a matter of fact, I think a book dealing with the issue of slavery and American presidents from Washington to Lincoln could be a winner.
Nevertheless, five stars all the way. Highly recommended.