Title: Washington: A Life
Author: Ron Chernow
Publication Date: 2010
Publishing House: Penguin Press
I wanted to read this biography after reading Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. This has started me down a journey of wanting to learn more about the founding fathers. I’ve added books on Abigail and John Adams, Eliza Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison to my to read list. Things we learn in school tend to put these people on a pedestal and deify them. They were human, they made mistakes, they changed their opinions, and they did questionable things. Understanding the actions of these people helps me to understand how their ideas shaped the America we live in today.
Also, if anyone ever says that people lashing out and ranting about others on social media is a new thing, it’s not. Online maybe a different medium but Hamilton and Jefferson started their own newspapers to write disparaging and inflated things about each other and the newly forming political factions at the time. These factions later became known as parties.
The celebrated Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of America. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life, he carries the reader through Washington’s troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian Wars, 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 waxwork to many readers, worthy but dull, a laconic man of remarkable self-control. But in this groundbreaking work Chernow revises forever the uninspiring stereotype. He portrays Washington as a strapping, celebrated horseman, elegant dancer and tireless hunter, who guarded his emotional life with intriguing ferocity. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, he orchestrated their actions to help realise his vision for the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.
Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America’s founding. This is a magisterial work from one of America’s foremost writers and historians.
What I like about Chernow’s biographies is that he pays equal attention to the attributes and faults of his subject. Washington was not a military genius. He was successful because he thought things through, was open to advice, and because of his tenacity. He did not win many battles on the field but he won the hearts of his men and of the American people. He held on for the freedom he believed in when the army and no money, few clothes, and even less food. He wagged a war with Congress for supplies and against the British, knowing that if he lost against England he would probably die for treason against the crown. Washington took the lessons he learned as general and used them after he was elected as the first president.
Washington worked diligently to set a good precedent for executive power during his time in office and did his best to discourage political factions, unfortunately he was unsuccessful in that regard. Washington was unsuccessful in many things: his estate at Mount Vernon never made enough money to keep up with his lavish lifestyle and he was always in debt. There were instances where carefully laid out battle plans did not go as planned and he froze, but not in fear. Washington didn’t make decisions quickly and he also had a temper that he normally kept tightly leashed. When he did let his anger out it always too people by surprise.
The elephant and the irony is that the father of American, the Commander in Chief who fought for freedom owned slaves. A fact that was not missed by Washington contemporaries. Chernow doesn’t disregard this fact and he presents the facts as they stand along with Washington’s thoughts as he noted them in his journal and will.
Over the course of his life, Washington did his best to be a man of honor and he worked to instill that honor in those that worked under him: his officers and soldiers during the revolution and his cabinet members during his terms in office. He was honest, deliberate, and reserved along with demanding the best of everyone he worked with and from those that worked for him.
If you are interested in American history or want to bring a humanizing element to the first president of the United States I encourage you to read this book and other biographies. Understanding the past is key to understanding the future and helps in taking an active step in the tomorrow we want to see. Happy reading.