Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (The Penguin Press, 2010, 904 p)
From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington. 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.
George Washington remains, to this day, one of the most admired figures in the annals of American history. The hero of the Revolutionary War and the first President of the United States, he is often sanctified in historical discussions. In truth, he was a “sensitive, complex figure, full of pent-up passion,” who had many fallible traits and shortcomings. Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning expansive biography is a “one volume, cradle to grave narrative” of this fascinating individual (xxi). Washington grew from a young plantation owner to the man who led the Continental Army through an agonizing eight years of war and eventually assumed the mantel of leadership over a new nation.
Chernow walks us through the many stages of Washington’s life. His early years on Virginia plantations, his expeditions into the wilderness of the western frontier, his unsuccessful early military forays, marriage, early public life, and eventually those activities which would lead to his fame. Under the gaze of his ungrateful and hypercritical mother, Washington was a man who desperately desired to maintain the proper image of a gentleman. It is apparent he succeeded at this endeavor in the eyes of many.
Washington’s reputation during his day was profound. Imagine, if you will, a group of teenage girls reacting to seeing Taylor Swift in concert or grown men seeing their favorite sports figure. Washington attained this popularity. Chernow shows us clearly how the people grew to love and respect him, primarily because of his leadership during the war. “His fortitude in keeping the impoverished Continental Army intact was a major historical accomplishment. It always stood on the brink of dissolution, and Washington was the one figure who kept it together, the spiritual and managerial genius of the whole enterprise… He was that rare general who was great between battles and not just during them” (457).
His popularity was so great that many in the early years believed the nation would fail without him at the helm. Because of this acclaim, it became nearly impossible for early biographers to “reclaim the complex human being. The man immediately merged with the myth” (812). Chernow’s skill at providing us an accurate portrait of this mythological figure is critical to understanding “his tough, often moody nature,” and the many varied contradictions of the man himself (813).
Washington was also a very complicated individual and Chernow deserves credit for allowing us to see the more human side of this great man. While Washington was, by all appearances, happily married, he loved the attention of the beautiful ladies in society and often sought their company in social settings. There is no evidence that shows Washington was ever unfaithful to his wife, but there are indications he carried on several affairs of the heart over the years.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the way Washington is perceived was his stance on slavery. For a man who was the father of the nation and the defender of freedom, he never came to terms with the issue of slavery. He owned large numbers of slaves throughout his life to work the many farms he had and while he frequently spoke out against the institution of slavery, he never took the step of freeing his slaves during his presidency. “He suffered from a conceptual blind spot about slavery, tending to regard it as a fair economic exchange: he clothed and fed his workers, and ‘in return, I expect such labor as they ought to render’. He could never seem to understand why his slaves might regard this tacit bargain as preposterous” (495).
Behind the glowing accolades and the glaring defects, Chernow presents us with the picture of a man who was filled with a passion for this new nation. He eschewed the concept of political parties, believing that the American people must hold their representatives accountable through patriotism rather than what he termed societal groups. He believed that while such groups “may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people” (755). In this, at least, Washington seemed prescient.
Chernow’s epic biography presents us with an opportunity to better understand the father of our nation as a military leader, as a political figure, and as a man. This unfailingly honest portrayal does justice to Washington’s memory and legacy. While the reading of this book is quite the undertaking, those individuals who consider themselves fans of history, leadership, military and political issues, and biographies in general will find much to gain by the investment of their time and energy.
Matt Long is a contributing reviewer to DODReads. He is an active-duty Naval officer stationed near Memphis, Tennessee. Additionally, Matt is a real estate investor and advocate for literacy who believes in life-long learning through reading. He can be reached through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/longmatthewm/.