Sunday, December 11, 2011

George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow - Book Review

George Washington has always been a sort of cardboard character to me. I've long since given up many of the myths (lies) we were taught as children – Pastor Weems' “Father, I cannot tell a lie” about the cherry tree, the coin across the Rappahanock, and so-on. Nevertheless, I came to view Washington as a distant, cold, perhaps even limited character due to his storied reticence, maybe even a creature the vent of some humor because of his mythical wooden teeth. Thanks first to David McCullouch for 1776 and now to Ron Chernow for his magnificent biography, the character, intelligence, ambition, weaknesses and strengths of our first President emerge in full. He is shown as the greatest of the Founders, not for his excesses, but for his restraint and the restraint he inserted into the American character. In Washington:A Life , winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in history, Chernow has presented a fully developed man who, through hard work, dogged persistence, deeply felt passions, and iron restraint fashioned himself and then led his country through its most perilous and dangerous times, always sublimating his personal ambition, comfort, and wealth to the good of helping create the United States of America. 

Ron Chernow
Weighing in at nearly three pounds and over 700 pages of text plus extensive notes, Washington is a book best read in e-book format unless you really like getting cramps in your hands. While the pictures included in the book are mildly interesting, they're not necessary for a complete appreciation of this important biography of the man who remains our most important Founding Father. Despite its heft, the book never becomes boring. Chernow is a marvelous writer and Washington: A Life is more often a real page turner, not because it deals in suspense, but because it's easy to become attached to George Washington – to like, admire him, wishing to understand and emulate his best qualities, which also still stand as the strongest ones moving our country. Washington emerges as great at least partly because of his flaws, which are never hidden in this biography. Rather, Washington himself was deeply aware of most of his deficiencies, which, as he developed, he used to help forge the epic leader he became. Chernow is a master story-teller whose biographies give life to their subjects as well as their times.

Washington's life was complex and nuanced. He was present at many of the most important times in the development of our nation. I'd like to look at a few of the issues which were particularly interesting to me without seeking to make this a comprehensive review. Suffice it to say, about the entire work, that it's as good as its going to get if you have an interest the “Father of Our Country.” There are three areas I'd like to concentrate on: 1. How a Virginia planter turned into a revolutionary and why that's important, 2. Washington's confused and important posture towards slavery, and 3. the importance of many decisions Washington made toward establishing American traditions and constitutional interpretations that have stood us in good stead until the present time, when they're once again being challenged.

Martha Washington

Washington, although not born to particular wealth nor great family position within the Virginia tideland planter aristocracy was often lucky. He benefited from the early death of his father as well as in marrying the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis. While still young, he achieved national attention as a colonial officer fighting in the French and Indian War for the British. He was also deeply angered by the fact that colonial officers were treated as inferior to British regular army officers, an early slight that began his turn towards resisting British rule. Later, as his lands increased, Washington found that taxes imposed by the British as well as their practice of requiring colonial businesses to export to England increased his resistance. As a young member of the Virginia House of Burgesses he knew men like Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Thomas Paine, all of whom helped to mold his ideas about Enlightenment principles of freedom and independence. As an ambitious young man burned by the difficulties of doing business in the British owned colonies, Washington was ripe for rebellion when the time came. He was also recognized early as the only logical person to become Commander in Chief of the new Continental Army. His reputation for probity, solid judgment, and getting along well with members of all factions suited him perfectly for command.

As a southern planter, George Washington owned slaves who had come to him through inheritance and controlled still others who were inherited by his wife. These “dower slaves” proved to create a long-term problem for him as his personal beliefs and attitudes toward slavery became increasingly nuanced and subtle during his life. Washington was always a demanding and careful businessman. He treated his slaves as a valuable and expensive investment who should be treated well, at least partly because not to do so would prove to be a bad investment for him. He was noted, both as a boss, a military commander, and an owner of slaves as a hard, but fair, task master. He treated his slaves with unusual kindness for the times, but clearly had difficulty perceiving why they should not wish to remain owned by and working for him. Slaves living on Mount Vernon as well as the other farms he owned were well treated, properly fed, and received health care unusual for the period. He insisted that his slaves be vaccinated against smallpox. He would not sell slaves if it meant breaking up family units. In his will, Washington freed all the slaves he personally owned, but did not have the right to free those belonging in his wife's estate. He seemed to believe that, if left to economic reality, slavery would soon whither away and did not anticipate the great civil war necessary to end it. Nevertheless, his attitudes toward slavery and treatment of those in his service were ahead of his times.

Washington in 1772

When the United States had won the Revolution, Washington insisted on retiring and returning to his home in Mount Vernon despite the ease with which he could have become a dictator or be named king. When a constitutional convention was held, he was elected its president by acclamation. Washington has a reputation for not having spoken during the convention, over which he presided. However, it is now clear he was an active back room participant working with fellow Federalists to create a strong central government which could have an army, sources of income, and the ability to spread westward with impunity while forging compromises with southerners that made it possible to get the Constitution ratified. Because he was not a strong ideologue, he was looked upon by all sides to be judicious and balanced. It is clear that, while he was a religious person himself, he insisted upon the secular nature of the nation and showed his advocacy of this posture by worshiping in not only churches, but synagogues. He was a strong believer in religious tolerance. As President, Washington recognized that each action he took would establish a precedent for the nation. In his care to avoid turning the president into a monarchical institution, his insistence on establishing the functions of all three branches of government, and, perhaps most important, in retiring from the presidency at the end of his second term, Washington set a tone for the future of the nation. 

Washington Later in Life
Washington seems a formal, distant, and somewhat inarticulate person in his public behavior. He was a deeply formal person also painfully aware of his lack of higher education and, later in life, embarrassed by the appearance of his false teeth. He seems, however, to have been a genial host with quite an eye for the ladies. Chernow describes two flirtatious romances which he believes were never consumated. Nevertheless, Washington enjoyed being around young women despite his long, and apparently happy, though childless, marriage to Martha. Throughout his life, his home in Mount Vernon was a stopping off place for Americans traveling north and south as well as foreign dignitaries. He was always described as a genial host who enjoyed a good laugh. He was reckoned to be one of the finest horsemen of his age.

Iconic Portrait of Washington Crossing Delaware

Washington: ALife by Ron Chernow won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history. It is an extraordinarily readable and thought provoking piece of work. Published by the Penguin Press, is is available in all formats. In hard cover it retails for $40.00 but is being pretty deeply discounted. I recommend reading it in e-book format.