Review: Washington


Washington: A LifeRon 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!


Review: The Warburgs

the warburgs

The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish FamilyRon Chernow. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Summary: The story of a prosperous and sprawling Jewish banking family who eventually established banking and philanthropic efforts in Germany, England, and the U.S., experiencing both great success and influence, and stunning disillusionment with the rise of Nazi Germany.

The Warburgs. It sounds like the title of a serialized TV drama chronicling a wealthy, influential, family with its own inner struggles, eccentric and driven characters, triumphs, tragedies and affairs. This wouldn’t be far off of the truth about this Jewish banking family whose rise began with the founding of M.M. Warburg & Co. in 1798.

I picked this up because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Grant (review). This is a much earlier work, and in many ways far more complicated, in telling the story of several generations of a family from the turn of the nineteenth century into the 1990’s. It was a family with two major and rival branches, the Alsterufer and Mittelweg Warburgs, and a family that became established on both sides of the Atlantic.

For much of the story, the Mittelweg side of the family was in the ascendent. The five sons of Moritz Warburg, exercised great influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Max Warburg stands out in the development of M.M. Warburg as a power house private bank in Hamburg before the rise of Nazi Germany. His elder brother Aby relinquished his place in banking for intellectual pursuits, amassing a unique library that reflected his synthesis of knowledge, bankrolled by his prosperous brothers, who stay by him during periods where his genius descended into insanity. Brothers Paul and Felix emigrated to the U.S. Paul was an economic genius who outlined the framework for our Federal Reserve System while Felix married into the Schiff banking family and became an influential partner in Kuhn, Loeb, in New York City and engaged in extensive Jewish philanthropy. Fritz fled Germany for Sweden.  Max remained and struggled to maintain his banking house’s clients in an increasingly hostile atmosphere and held out the hope that some accommodation could be reached with the Nazis. In the end, he turned the bank over to the Aryan Brinckmann, supposedly a caretaker for the Warburg interest, but who fought to retain control after the war.

The later part of the book chronicles the post-war trajectory of Warburg interests and the rise of the Alsterufer branch in the person of Siegmund Warburg, who established S.G. Warburg in England in 1946 and built it into a major investment banking firm before his death. Chernow’s portrayal of this financial genius was fascinating. We observe a leader who exercised perfectionist control over the firm while delivering excellence of customer service to both small and large investor, a man of both towering rages and refinement, one as much inclined to the philosopher’s retreat as to the hurley-burley of the financial world. The tense alliance/rivalry between him and Eric, Max’s son, over the re-establishment of the Warburg name in Germany accentuates the continued competition between the two branches of the family.

One of the themes is the tension the Warburgs struggled with over their German and Jewish identities, a tension many Jews in Germany faced. They, with other Germans, took great pride in the rise of Germany as a power, and saw their own efforts as part of this. Max even served as a pre-war director on the board of I.G. Farben, the chemical concern that manufactured Zyklon B, used to exterminate Jews in the concentration camps. We follow the gradual opening of the eyes of Max and other family members to the unfolding tragedy of Nazism and how a nation would willingly participate in the elimination of some of its greatest fellow citizens. Max both tried to encourage Jews to wait it out, and yet also helped bankroll and facilitate the flight of many others and was one of the last to leave while Jews could.

Another theme is the dissipation of Jewish identity through wealth and marriage outside the faith. Each generation was increasingly less observant, and the main thing that marked them out was philanthropic efforts. Some became secular, others married Christians, allowing children to be baptized and raised in Christian faith.

What is striking at the same time is a family marked by financial and intellectual genius, whether it was Moritz, the first of the Mittelwegs or Max, or his son Eric, who eventually succeeded in restoring the M.M. Warburg & Co. name in Hamburg. Jimmy, Paul’s son advised Franklin Roosevelt for a time, and flip flops between progressive and conservative stances, alienating him from most of those in power until he came back in favor during the Kennedy administration. One could go on and discuss the varied careers of the Warburg women, including Max’s four daughters.

One of the challenges was keeping all the names and family relationships straight! Chernow provides a family tree in the front matter and it’s good to keep it marked. What is striking is that he spins a fascinating narrative of this sprawling family, its hopes, its genius, its outliers, it’s impact and the cost of wealth over the generations. Even today, the Warburg name remains on Warburg, Pincus and M.M. Warburg & Co.  S.G. Warburg was bought out by Swiss Bank, became Warburg Dillon Read and later UBS Warburg before the Warburg name gave way to UBS Investment Bank. Chernow helps us understand the drive and the significant actors behind this enduring legacy of influence in the worlds of banking, philanthropy, and culture.


Review: Grant


GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A biography on the life of Ulysses S. Grant from his Ohio childhood, his years of failure in business, his rise during the Civil War, his presidency, and later years, including the completion of his memoirs as a dying man.

Many people know the work of Ron Chernow from his great biography, Alexander Hamilton, which served as the basis of the Broadway play, or his biography, Washington: A Life. Chernow has done it again in this biography of Grant, which will likely raise Grant in the rankings of presidents, and establishes Chernow as one of the premier presidential biographers. I honestly can’t say enough good about this book. It is rare to come to the end of 960 pages and wish there were more. I have his Washington: A Life on my TBR pile and will move it up!

Chernow gives us a Grant caught between the ambitions and expectations of father, father-in-law, and socially ambitious wife. It is little wonder in some ways that he struggled with drinking, which Chernow explores throughout the book. Grant quietly resigned from the Army in the early 1850’s likely because of drinking problems on a backwater post in the Pacific northwest. He was a failure at farming a plot of land provided by his father-in-law, and unhappy running a store owned by his father under his younger brother in Galena, Illinois, and continued to struggle with drink. One heroic aspect of Grant’s life was his gradual mastery of this problem during the Civil War (with occasional lapses) and in his presidency (where he remained sober) and later life. The vigilance of his aide, John Rawlins, and wife Julia certainly helped, but Grant’s own eventual mastery is evidence of the resolute nature of this man.

Chernow explores the complicated nature of this man, who seems a bundle of contradictions. He could keenly recognize the opportunities of a battlefield situation and the outlines of grand strategy that led to victory after victory culminating in Appomattox and yet could not assess the character of his closest associates, who often betrayed his trust, in war, in his cabinet, and at the end of his life, when he was bankrupted by Ponzi-schemer Ferdinand Ward.

He could seem like someone with low energy and little drive until a crisis, where he would remain calm, and give decisive direction. He was the first general Lincoln found who would take the fight to the enemy and ruthlessly prosecute it to the end, gaining the reputation of being “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Then he grants magnanimous peace terms to General Lee and his troops, for which many gave him their undying respect. In later life, touring Europe, he at once dazzled people with his grasp of military history and strategic concepts, showing far more brilliance than people credited, and yet he had no desire for reviewing troops, having seen more than enough of this in his time.

His presidency as well was a bundle of contradictions. His administration was a mix of men of integrity, and corrupt friends, who tainted his reputation as their corruption became evident. Most noteworthy, and a theme of Chernow’s was his vigorous efforts both during the Johnson administration, and in his presidency, to protect and extend Reconstruction, including Black voting rights and office holders, while healing the rift with the South that led Frederick Douglass to write this in summary of his career: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” John Singleton Mosby, a Confederate general wrote on learning of his death: “I felt I had lost my best friend.”

In addition to Reconstruction, his skill in avoiding war with Great Britain over the Alabama, turning it into an occasion to cement the alliance with Great Britain we enjoy to this day, his management of the nation’s finances in paying down war debt, and his fostering of economic growth outshine the corruption of his associates, who he defended at first, but then dealt with when evidence was clear that they had betrayed his, and the public’s trust. His administration was probably better than the taint of scandal that has come down to us. As Chernow notes, he loved his friends too well rather than wisely.

He was a man of few words, except when unbending with close friends. His orders and his speeches were models of clarity and concision. Yet this same man, dying of cancer of the throat accomplished the stupendous feat of writing the 336,000 words in his final years, finishing them just before he died. Many critics consider the Memoirs the one of the greatest works of this genre, described by Chernow as written in a “clear, supple style.” Apart from minor changes of punctuation and grammar, he needed little editing. Writing this work, motivated in significant part to provide for his family after the financial debacle with Ferdinand Ward left him nearly penniless, was perhaps the most courageous act of his life, as he struggled on in great pain and increasing weakness. He finished the work on July 16, and died a week later on July 23, 1885 at age 63.

All this, and so much more, you will find in Chernow’s Grant. Chernow, while cognizant of Grant’s faults, doesn’t bury Grant’s greatness in his failings. He proposes that there is far more to this General and President than we have credited. And as a writer, he celebrates another writer, whose Memoirs are going on my reading list!


What Makes a Book a Good “Read”?

GrantWhat makes a book a good “read”? This has been a question I’ve been pondering as I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s Grant. As I write I’m 680 pages into the book and into Grant’s presidency. There are about 300 pages to go, and this is one book I don’t want to end. I contrast this with some 200 page books where i get to page 50 and wonder when it will end.

I’ve come up with several things that I think play into making a book of any length and any type a great read:

First of all is the choice of a subject or plot focus. Grant as a person makes for a fascinating subject. Son and son-in-law of two overbearing fathers. Resigned his position in the Army due to drinking problems, which dogged his heels all his life. A failure in civilian life in the years leading up to the war. Yet he comes alive with the Civil War as a leader who doesn’t worry about what others could do to him, but wants Confederate officers to worry about him. He takes the fight to his enemies. He finds an aide, John Rawlins, who acts as his conscience, keeping him more or less sober. He fights Lee fiercely, wearing him down, and treats him with grace at Appomattox. He sees Blacks as people, and embraces Emancipation and Reconstruction, when so many, even in the North, resist it. He is a man of integrity, yet can be strangely blind to others of lesser character. And on it goes.

A good writer finds or creates interest in her plot or subject. In one sense, almost anything can be interesting if the writer finds what is interesting in it. What a good writer seems to do is tease out the richness, the fascination, the goodness, and flaws of his character or characters. This is far more than a bare narrative of Grant’s life–one event after another. It is an exploration of what it was to be Grant. Chernow’s obviously thought about the strength’s and flat sides of Grant–how what worked on the battlefield and didn’t in political office. He considers the people around Grant, and their influence without submerging the influence of Grant himself.

Then there is the question of pace. How can someone write a thousand page book without being tedious? It comes down to keeping things moving. Chernow always seems to move on before I start wishing he would. Sometimes this is not the case with books that are considered “great.” Readers often complain they are hard to read, even if they explore fundamental matters of the human condition. I’m not sure what to say about this except that perhaps there are times when what is being said is of such importance that we hang in there, even if we wish it had been written with greater facility.

Finally, I think it comes down finally to good sentences. As a reader, what one notices is that you don’t bog down in the text but just move down the page. Meaning comes through clearly, and the sentences aren’t too complex. You don’t keep going back asking, what did I just read?

A good read is a pleasure. We often spend far more on a good meal or performance than we do on a good book that affords hours of pleasure and enriches our lives. I’m coming more and more to believe it is money well spent, a way to say “thank you” to authors, publishers, and booksellers who bring this goodness into our lives.