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Book Review: Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

The biographer of Alexander Hamilton (there was a musical, you might have heard of it) writes about his boss.


Washington: A Life

Penguin Press, 2010, 928 pages



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 listener 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. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man.

A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master.

At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.




Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton was the basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, Hamilton. I have not read Alexander Hamilton yet, but after reading Robert Caro's magnificent multivolume biography of LBJ, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, I decided to embark upon a personal "bucket list," which is to read (preferably in sequence) biographies of every one of America's Presidents, and see what it's like to examine the history of the country through a presidential lens. Chernow's biography of George Washington seemed like a good starting point.

As Chernow points out, biographies of our first president began popping up practically as soon as he died. These early biographies, of course, were highly embellished hagiographies, such as Parson Weems' The Life of Washington, which is responsible for myths like his chopping down a cherry tree, throwing a silver dollar across the Delaware River, and praying at Valley Forge.

Washington was beloved by his country in death as in life, and it's not surprising that the man who many feared might become a monarch (and who arguably could have, if he'd wanted to) became an American saint after he died.

He would probably have been both flattered and chagrined at The Apotheosis of George Washington that now hangs in the Capitol Building.

The Apotheosis of George Washington

Ron Chernow's much more recent biography of Washington attempts to collect everything we know of the man from his extensive letters, and those of the men and women who knew him throughout his life, and paint a more accurate and human picture of him. Chernow is thorough and has a mostly non-editorial style, only occasionally inserting an authorial POV into the narrative.

One of the first things that surprised me was how many details about Washington's early life are unknown. We sometimes forget what a rough and largely undocumented society colonial America was, forcing us to fill in the gaps with a lot of speculation that's acquired a patina of unfounded certainty over time.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, on his family's plantation in Virginia. We know his mother, Mary Ball Washington, was his father's second wife. We know his father died when he was 11, and his mother raised him on her own thereafter. We know it was George's great-grandfather, John Washington, who first came to Virginia from England. The Washingtons were an old and respectable family in England, though not members of the aristocracy.

But a lot of George's childhood — how much education he received, what he did in his teen years, even his romantic relationships as he entered adulthood — are mostly conjecture. There are quite a few places in Chernow's biography where he points out that there is evidence that Washington had feelings for one woman or another, and that it's possible that these feelings might have been reciprocated and even that they led to something, but we really don't know.

Sally Fairfax


Partly this is because Washington didn't receive a lot of formal education (which Chernow claims was a source of insecurity his entire life) and didn't write much about his youth. While he did leave a lot of letters behind, very few of them revealed his sentiments. His reputation for being an undemonstrative, granite-faced stoic was slightly exaggerated, but not completely undeserved.

By the time Washington was born, his family was prosperous, if not rich. This was another interesting aspect to Washington, as financial troubles would plague him his entire life. He is usually described as a wealthy Virginian patrician, like Thomas Jefferson, and he was, at least in terms of his lifestyle. He socialized with rich people, as an adult he lived in a mansion and had hundreds of slaves and a lot of land. But he was frequently in debt, and literally had to borrow money to attend his own inauguration in suitable style. One of his lifelong problems was being overly generous, and living beyond his means. His Mount Vernon plantation was never very profitable, and while he wasn't an entirely self-made man (his parents had a plantation, after all), he definitely did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He worked hard, as did his mother.

Mary Ball Washington



Mary Ball Washington

George's mother was quite an interesting character in her own right. She was a widow in an era where widows who didn't remarry had few options except relying on the kindness of their families, but Mary Ball Washington was a tough, hard-working lady whose domineering influence on George's life is seen until she died in 1789. She interfered in his career prospects and prevented him from joining the navy, even though technically she had no legal veto power over his decisions. She ran their plantation with George and their slaves

She was apparently not particularly affectionate, and George didn't feel a great deal of affection for her, yet he was always a dutiful son. This caused him a lot of headaches later. Mary never showed pride in her son's accomplishments — not when he became commander of the Continental Army, not when he led a successful rebellion against Britain (there were rumors, for which Chernow says there isn't really much evidence, that she was a Tory), and not even when he became President. Instead, she continually pestered him for money, and even pleaded poverty to their friends and the Virginia legislature, causing George a great deal of embarrassment. Always sensitive about his reputation, he never failed to send his mother money when she asked, and was quite upset that she was painting him as a neglectful son. (In fact, on her death it turned out Mary Ball Washington was far from poor.)

He coulda been a Tory



Washington was a principled man who often did the right thing at the expense of his own self-interest, so it's easy to see him as completely altruistic, but in fact, he was quite ambitious as a young man, and even after he was President, he was very concerned about his legacy, quite aware that he was a major historical figure, and he really wanted to be seen in a good light.

During his early career as a military scout for the British, he fought in the French-Indian War, and got repeatedly dissed by the British, who had no respect for colonials. This was one of the first obvious inflection points in Washington's history — he really wanted a commission in the British army. He served under General Braddock, who didn't listen to Washington's advice and died in a skirmish that presaged the British inability to deal with colonial guerrilla tactics.

The Wounding of General Braddock

Washington was an aspiring gentleman who really wanted to join high society. (He also wanted to visit England, but in fact he never would.) Had he been given the commission he desired, he would likely have become a high-ranking British officer, and helped suppress the revolutionaries a few years later.

But his experiences in the French-Indian War left him bitter, and he'd have a grudge against the British for the rest of his life. This would be ironic during his presidency, when he'd be accused of monarchical and pro-British sentiment.

Washington was a great leader, but not such a great general




Any hope of success is fleeting
How can I keep leading when the people I’m
Leading keep retreating?
We put a stop to the bleeding as the British take Brooklyn
Knight takes rook, but look


Washington hagiographies talk a lot about his stoicism, his great leadership, his tribulations at Valley Forge, his crossing the Delaware. They don't talk much about his mixed record as a military general. In fact, Washington lost more battles than he won. The British won most of their battles, but lost the war. Chernow describes how many of Washington's losses were the result of poor judgment. In some cases, he just made bad guesses, but in others, he was simply not the best general in the field. His leadership was inspiring and no one could fault his courage, but he wasn't a grand strategist.

He also had to deal with mutinies, manpower shortages, and lack of funds. Part of our American mythology today is how all the brave revolutionaries fought against impossible odds, through the bitter cold of Valley Forge, etc., etc., because they were dedicated to the cause of freedom, but in fact, the troops wanted to get paid, and state legislatures frequently had no money. There wasn't yet much of a federal government, and Washington was constantly having to beg the militias to stay on for another term when their service was up. Starving militiamen sometimes ended up pillaging the countryside and looting civilian homes. When Washington returned to Philadelphia, he felt the familiar soldier's resentment as he saw how comfortable and well-fed all the civilians were, and how many speculators were getting rich, while his troops out in the field were foraging for food.

President Washington



After the war, Washington returned to Mount Vernon. He wanted to be a gentleman farmer and retire from politics. The plantation was in terrible shape, as were his finances.

However, the new nation wasn't in much better shape. There was no strong government, there were rebellions over taxes, and the European powers were circling, assuming that America would soon be up for grabs. We didn't have a Constitution yet, just some Articles of Confederation.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was extremely controversial. Even its legality was questioned. Washington was reluctant to go at first, but eventually was persuaded to represent Virginia. Even though Washington's election as the first president was quickly becoming an inevitability, the cracks were also becoming evident.

Washington was still enormously popular, but the early Republic was not. Washington was stuck with John Adams as his VP, who would go on to become the second president, with rival Thomas Jefferson as his VP because that was how things worked until the 12th Amendment.

Ya know that big musical about Washington's first Secretary of the Treasury? Alexander Hamilton and Washington had a somewhat fraught relationship. Hamilton was initially an admirer of the general, and Washington recognized his brilliance, but he and Washington had some tiffs during the war, though not enough for Washington not to bring him into his new cabinet.

Hamilton was a Federalist who wanted a central bank. Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was a Republican who mistrusted central governments, Britain, and Hamilton. Washington's cabinet was a mess. He had rival factions backstabbing and smearing each other and him, while he tried to stay above it all and reconcile his fundamentally irreconcilable partisans.

By his second term, the press honeymoon was over and Washington was being attacked by newspapers for his foreign policy, his alleged monarchical tendencies, and Hamilton's federalism. Jefferson almost resigned, then did resign. Washington was repeatedly hurt at the things said about him in the press and at what he perceived to be disloyalty from his friends.


You know every action has its equal opposite reaction
And thanks to Hamilton, now our cabinet's fractured into factions
Try not to crack under the stress, we're breaking down like the fractions
We smack each other in the press, and we don't print retractions


It's safe to say that by 1796, Washington really wanted to get away from Washington, even though he had a whole city named after him and everything. There were friends and partisans urging him to run again, but he established the tradition (not enforced in the Constitution until 1947, but unbroken until FDR) of presidents not serving more than two terms.

The man, the Federalist, the slave owner



It's worth taking a moment to consider the value of reading a biography like Washington: A Life. Much of what I've recounted above could be gleaned in a few minutes from reading George Washington's Wikipedia article. So what does Chernow bring to the table?

A biographer has to add value in the form of analysis, insight, and putting facts together in ways that aren't just stringing together Wikipedia articles. At the same time, editorializing and excessive speculation can give doubt to a biographer's accuracy or make you wonder about an agenda.

Chernow states his primary goal in the beginning: George Washington has long been a sort of legendary figure, an American saint who is among our most revered Founding Fathers, with an elaborate mythology around him. Most people know, of course, that the anecdote about the cherry tree was just a fable, but his popular image is still not a lot different from his face on Mount Rushmore: a figure carved out of granite, stern and unmovable.

Washington on Mount Rushmore

Chernow wanted to show the man, including his foibles, his failures, his feelings. To do this, he describes Washington's ambitions and disappointments, his financial troubles, his mommy problems. There is only a little speculation: the inferred romantic entanglements, like his youthful infatuation with Sally Fairfax, are not proven, but Chernow draws on his letters, Martha Washington's letters, and the letters of Sally and her husband to draw a convincing and believable picture of two old friends who might have had a "thing" when they were younger. Likewise, Washington's frustrations with his louche step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who proved to be a poor student and a rather lazy young man, Chernow uses as evidence that Washington was insecure about his own lack of education.

Where he really has to delve a bit is the subject of Washington's feelings. We learn early on that Washington's reputation for steely self-control was a very real thing and something that Washington cultivated deliberately. We also learn that he did have deep feelings that he only rarely exhibited. He was one of those guys whose anger made much more of an impact on people because he so rarely showed it.

He was highly principled: Chernow finds hardly anything to blemish his reputation for honest and integrity, though his critics certainly tried. He made mistakes, but hardly any were motivated by self-interest. Indeed, throughout his life, he scrupulously turned down offers for self-enrichment, even working without pay when he actually really needed the money.

What were his flaws? Well, he was of an aristocratic class with aristocratic pretensions, and while he showed respect and courtesy to ordinary citizens, it was often in the form of noblesse-oblige, or the old-school condescension of English gentry. This didn't prevent him from graciously hosting any random travelers who showed up at his Mount Vernon mansion, but he gave his opponents good (though unjust) reason to think him a would-be king.

He deeply mistrusted political parties. As the split between Hamilton's Federalists and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans became wider, Washington clearly leaned in favor of the Federalists, but he tried not show his partiality until relatively late, and never openly declare himself a Federalist while he was in office.

He also didn't understand the concept of "loyal opposition." He thought the press should accurately and fairly report the business of the government, but not criticize it, and he certainly didn't expect his subordinates to argue with him. To his credit, he accepted the slings and arrows of his critics rather than trying to shut them down, as other politicians have done throughout the country's history, but he definitely felt he was being treated unjustly — not entirely without reason.

But no discussion of Washington can be complete without talking about his slaves, and Chernow talks about them quite a lot.

Washington and his slaves

Washington, like his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner. At the end of his life, he owned hundreds. Like many of the Founding Fathers, he struggled with the contradictions of creating a slave-owning country founded on ideals of freedom.

"By the standards of his time," Washington probably was a pretty good slave owner. But he was a slave owner.

Chernow tries to treat Washington fairly, without whitewashing him. The picture he paints is of a man who did feel the inherent injustice of slavery, but still rationalized its necessity. His Mount Vernon plantation could not have survived without slavery. He would have become a low-paid civil servant without his slaves. And Washington was no egalitarian: he constantly complained in letters to his overseers and family about the laziness and lack of productivity of Negroes. His huge blind spot was failing to understand that they were not engaged in a fair and mutually beneficial relationship, and so as he considered himself a reasonable and fair master, he didn't understand why his slaves insisted on slacking off at every opportunity, or even running away.

And when his slaves ran away, he tried to get them back. He was generally against harsh treatment of slaves, but he did not forbid his overseers to punish them. (This reminded me of the part in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind where she tells us what a kind master Scarlett O'Hara's father was because he only ever had a Negro whipped once...) He did take a firm stance against separating slave families, and resolved not to purchase any more (a resolution that was tested under financial pressure). He gave his slaves quite a bit of relative freedom, even allowing them to earn money on the side. And unlike Jefferson, there is no solid evidence that Washington ever took slave mistresses or had children with them. (There has been speculation, which Chernow talks about, but the conclusion is that it's pretty inconclusive.)

Washington spoke about the evils of slavery and his preference that it be abolished, but he never took concrete steps to actually do this. So he knew. He knew slavery was wrong, but he believed (hoped) that it would "go away" eventually — but not while he still needed slaves.

That said, he did something his fellow patricians didn't: he freed his slaves in his will. This was, however, a bit more complicated than it seems, as due to the laws of inheritance, some of his slaves were technically part of his wife's family and thus could not be freed by him. But as a gesture, it was still more than most of his peers ever did. It also caused Martha Washington some distress, as his will actually didn't free them until after she died, and she became quite aware of the fact that her slaves were openly anticipating their freedom upon her death. Unsurprisingly, she decided to free them ahead of time.

"Man of his time" defenses should rightfully be viewed skeptically. There were other men of Washington's time who fully recognized slavery as the evil it was, and wanted it prohibited in the Constitution. Washington thought Negroes weren't actually ready for freedom and needed a few more generations to be "civilized" first. So he cannot be considered a progressive thinker; indeed, he had feet of clay on an issue where he knew he was on the wrong side of history. He only freed his own slaves, and only belatedly.

But if being a man of his time counts for nothing, then I would argue history has no heroes. Washington was flawed and wrong, but he also did a lot of the right things for the right reasons. Could he have done better, and somehow prevented the Civil War that would happen in a hundred years? I don't know. I do think that if he'd somehow lived that long, Washington would eventually have come around to the right side of history. But we can only judge him by what he actually accomplished. I think he accomplished a tremendous amount, and if, like the United States itself, all his accomplishments and good deeds need an asterisk, they are still there and something any president could be proud of.

Chernow's writing was clear, well-sourced, and engaging. Clearly he admires the "Father of our Country," and comes close to lionizing him at times, but he sticks closely to what he can support with the actual words of Washington and his peers. He keeps the focus on Washington's life, which means we get large chunks of American history, but only through Washington's eyes. We learn a bit about Hamilton and Jefferson, and Lafayette (poor Lafayette, he deserved better!), but only through their interactions with Washington; their own stories require books of their own. The cast is large but the main character is always Washington.

This was a great book, and while I do want to proceed to the next president (John Adams, who stepped into shoes he could never fill), it also really makes me want to read Chernow's Hamilton.


Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control:

Who lives
Who dies
Who tells your story?







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Tags: books, highly recommended, history, non-fiction, presidential biographies, reviews, ron chernow
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