George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I recently finished Ron Chernow's massive Pulitzer Prize winning biography Washington: A Life - appropriately a couple of days after July 4th. Despite its hefty 900 page length, I found it readable and comprehensive and a good example of how a biography should be written. As Chernow puts it in the Acknowlegements, we ironically know much more about George Washington than most of his friends and contemporaries knew about this reserved man.

Despite being born into a family of only moderate wealth, Washington "lucked" into becoming an extensive landowner through deaths and marriage. One of the threads running through the book is the willingness of George and Martha Washington to take young relatives into their households after their parents had died. Despite never having children of their own (Martha had two children from a previous marriage) George Washington acted as a father to many young people, providing financial and moral support. A major theme is how he was able to serve as both father to his country and surrogate father to many young people.

One walks away from this book with a sense of how important as a personality Washington was to the formation of this country. Indeed, if one looks at his performance on the battlefield, both fighting the French and Indians as a British colonist and later fighting the British as a revolutionary, one is less than impressed. But Washington, despite initially favoring reconciliation with the British, took earlier military snubs to heart and saw no way to proceed besides declaring independence. His troops were ill-fed, barely trained, poorly dressed and often only signed up for six months at a time, at which point he would be forced to train new troops. There was only a weak federal government, requiring Washington to request financial help from often reluctant states. The only consistency in the army was Washington himself, who was often at the front of the troops on horseback. Washington was the symbol that kept the troops fighting for years.

Perhaps most striking of all about this great man is the way that his character defined "public servant". Washington's ideal would have been to remain at Mount Vernon and act as gentleman farmer but he was constantly being called into action. After spending five years on the battlefield he was drafted to be President of the Continental Congress before being unanimously elected for two terms as President of the United States (and even solicited as a possible monarch, a role which he refused). Just as he symbolized the American Revolution throughout the world, he would came to define the presidency with many of the decisions that he made, regarding everything from how he made his State of the Union addresses to his relationship with his Cabinet and the other branches creating a guide for all future presidents. Unfortunately, his presidency also helped create the two-party system, as he began to fall out with Thomas Jefferson and others regarding our country's relationship with France and England, and north and south philosophical differences.

The complex issue of Washington's true feelings about slavery is one that Chernow spends much time trying to explain. Washington was a slaveholder (though arguably a more compassionate one than many of his contemporaries) who depended upon slave labor to make a living. However, many who saw him as a symbol of freedom had difficulty reconciling his status as a slave owner with that of a revolutionary leader. Privately, Washington discussed his support for ending the institution of slavery (though he probably had economic reasons as well as moral reasons) but he did not allow his slaves to be freed until after he died, and actively hunted down escaped slaves while he lived.

Washington: A Life is a perfect example of everything a biography should be. George Washington was not the folk hero that Abraham Lincoln was or a colorful character like Theodore Roosevelt, so the Washington you see in textbooks often resembles a marble statue. This book does an exemplary job at bringing the man to life - a complex man with an overbearing mother and an eye for the ladies who was perhaps the premier figure in the creation of this country.

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