Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Summary: A one volume biography focusing on the character and emotional life and the qualities that enabled him to lead so effectively as general, in presiding over the Constitutional Convention and serving as first president.
Once again, winter found me working through a Ron Chernow biography, in this case, Washington, his study of the inner life and leadership of this Founder. Chernow’s contention is that Washington wasn’t the dull, stuffy figure he often is portrayed as, but a man of robust physical character, great ambition in both business and politics, and passionate in his affections–warm with family and trusted associates, flirtatious with women, and stern with his workers and slaves.
Throughout his life, he endured deplorable physical conditions on surveying trips, military expeditions, and travels, and even on his own farm, surviving numerous illnesses. Apart from his final illness, the more he was outdoors, the healthier he was. In battle, he was fearless, completely unconcerned by his own safety, and seemingly preserved by some kind of providence from harm. He was a magnificent horseman, usually entering a town on horseback, even as President. He paid careful attention to the tailoring of his uniforms, consciously aware of his appearance.
As a young officer under the British, he complained about unequal pay, sought promotion, and alienated the British. Over time, he learned to control his ambitions and his restraint and self-command seems to have been key in his command of others. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in the War of Independence was not the battles he fought (apart from Trenton) but that he held the army together despite inadequate supplies and poor or non-existent pay, long enough for the French alliance to pay off at Yorktown. He was a man of few words among those who were far more verbose at the Constitutional Convention. His impartial work as President of the Convention and quiet diplomacy behind the scenes brought the process to completion.
A combination of well-timed deaths and inheritances, and enterprise in acquiring lands allowed Washington to amass develop Mt. Vernon, as well as extensive holdings in the Ohio country. His lack of self-regard, and devotion to national service meant few years of enjoyment, and the neglect of his properties to his great financial loss. Only as President did he accept a salary–defraying his own expenses in all the other positions he held. While a formidable leader trusted by all at first, he used all his abilities of tact and restraint to keep the disparate spirits of a Hamilton and Jefferson in harness for most of his presidency, even while criticized by both men and their partisans. He kept a country just getting on its feet from getting embroiled in foreign conflict. One of the saddest things for him was that he could not prevent the rise of partisan divides.
Washington was a man of integrity and convictions. While Parson Weems tale of Washington cutting down the cherry tree and then confessing his crimes was not true, he was scrupulously careful with things like money and promises to care for his wards, even when this cost money that was in scarce supply. Equally, his strong convictions about America’s weak state under the Articles of Confederation and his persistent efforts to promote the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the constitution contributed immeasurably to the success of these efforts.
Chernow portrays Washington as a man of passion. He could be deeply moved in speaking farewell to the country at the end of his presidency, and at other significant milestones. He was a ladies man who would count the number of women in the room and dance the night away with them. With two women, Sally Fairfax and Elizabeth Willing Powel, he had more serious flirtations, at least in letters. It appears that things never got further than that. George and Martha had a deep bond, and I wonder if she was shrewd enough to keep him in check, but never estranged. She stayed with him through the hard winters of the war and he deferred to her on many matters of social life.
Washington could be harsh on subordinates, demanding of them the meticulous attention and service he demanded of himself. He was estranged from long time friend Henry Knox when Knox had a lapse of diligence due to personal affairs during the Whiskey rebellion. He was hard on his overseers.
Washington reflected the dilemmas that have been inherent in our national life. He was disturbed by the treatment of Native Americans but had no compunctions about sending General Anthony Wayne to subdue the tribes in the Northwest Territory so settlement could proceed. He wrestled with slavery throughout his life as a plantation owner, vigorously tracking down runaway slaves while trying to be a benevolent owner. One exceptional mark of his integrity was that his will provided for the emancipation of his slaves, education of young slaves, and provision for elderly slaves–far ahead of other southern plantation owners. Washington also struggled with the sectional differences already present and the tension between the strong federal government proposed by Hamilton and the agrarian republicanism of a Jefferson. Given all this, I wonder whether would would have ever become the United States without him.
While Chernow gives us all the events of his life, he also offers us insights into the man, hardly perfect, but hardly the stuffy and dull figure we might consider him, alongside a Hamilton or a Jefferson. There certainly is warrant to the attribution to Washington of indispensability. He did what others could only build on in holding together an army, bringing together a Constitutional Convention, and establishing a strong presidency while relinquishing its power willingly and peacefully. He did this through courage, integrity, warm relationships, firmness and resolve, and even charm.
Chernow does all this with a flow of prose that seems to make 800 pages of text fly, leaving this reader not wanting it to end. When one reviews the acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography, it becomes apparent that he has woven extensive primary and secondary sources and other research skillfully into a flowing and fascinating narrative. After his work on Washington and Grant, I wonder who he will write about next. One thing I know, if I’m around, it will be at the top of my reading pile!