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Washington: A Life

September 11th, 2011

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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 reader 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. Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man. A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master. At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency. In this unique biography, Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America's founding. With a dramatic sweep worthy of its giant subject, Washington is a magisterial work from one of our most elegant storytellers.


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History Books 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 reader 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. Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man. A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master. At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency. In this unique biography, Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America's founding. With a dramatic sweep worthy of its giant subject, Washington is a magisterial work from one of our most elegant storytellers.
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  1. Eileen Pollock
    September 13th, 2011 at 01:37 | #1

    Rating

    Why do we need another biography of George Washington? The four volume Flexner biography was published 40 years ago, and since then 60 newly edited volumes of Washington letters and diaries have been published, which Chernow has read closely. He has combed the important multi-volume biographies and reviewed the shorter more recent books. The bibliography is many pages, the text meticulously footnoted. Chernow brings keen psychological insight to this magisterial work. His preamble sets forth his purpose: to bring Washington to life, to get behind the grave, somber image so the reader will have a true appreciation of the man. Moreover, Chernow’s writing is superb. The book – over 800 pages of text alone – never drags and one’s interest never flags. You can open it anywhere and receive enlightenment. On Washington’s leadership in the Revolutionary War: “His fortitude in keeping the impoverished Continental Army intact was a major historic accomplishment… He was that rare general who was great between battles and not just during them.” On Washington’s early charisma: “Long before he achieved great fame or renown, something about Washington’s bearing and presence bedazzled people.” It is a tribute to Chernow that he “remembers the ladies”, with colorful descriptions of Martha Washington and her circle: “It is a testimony to Martha’s social versatility that she won over women who were far more intellectual than she.” On celebrity: “For all of Washington’s professions of modesty, the thought of his high destined niche in history was never far from his mind.” On religious tolerance, Chernow quotes a letter from Washington to a Jewish congregation in Newport: “‘All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…’” I approached this book with some trepidation – so long, so detailed, another Washington biography? Why read it? To find out how Washington did it. To study his character. To be inspired. To understand the virtue in moderation and self control. To feel, far beyond the cliche, proud to be an American.

  2. Bryn C. Dunham
    September 13th, 2011 at 13:51 | #2

    Rating

    Simply an amazing biography of George Washington! Comparable to James Flexner’s bio, this is far more detailed in the fact that Chernow not so much breaks down the mythical ediface of Washington but explains him in such detail that the reader can actually get a sense of who he really was. Chernow digs deep into Washington’s mind by citing the facts and primary sources that make him far more human than mythical. Though critcal of Washington on many issues, he is fair in reavealing that GW was driven by many normal human ambitions and was very critical about his image and his reputation. This was a great read and a must read for any American history reader who wants to learn more and enjoy learning about GW and the times he lived in.

  3. Big Muddy
    September 17th, 2011 at 21:47 | #3

    Rating

    This massive and exhaustive tome on the life of Washington (the man, not the myth) mines a number of primary and secondary sources, but atypically for the genre also quotes the work of other Washington biographers, among them Douglas Southall Freeman. The author belabors many fine points in an effort to write the definitive Washington biography; there is no action or mistep so small as to not benefit from a page or more of exculpation and excruciating consideration. There is a running speculative description of Washington’s inner world (e.g., his thoughts about ongoing construction and planting at Mount Vernon during early revolutionary campaigns, his tightly controlled passions, and his conflicted feelings about slavery) amidst the story of his work with other “First Fathers”. It is a very personalized biography; that is, the author freely and openly shares his own opinion of Washington’s actions, and what might have happened “if”. I found myself wishing at times for a sidebar, which might have permitted a clearer exposition of history v. the author’s well formed and learned opinion.

  4. Sam Sattler
    September 18th, 2011 at 06:14 | #4

    Rating

    I would guess that most Americans do not even realize how little they know about George Washington. Oh, sure, we all know that silly cherry tree story (an event that never happened) proving that Washington “could not tell a lie.” We know that he crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776 during the Revolutionary War because we are familiar with the (historically inaccurate) Emanuel Leutze painting from 1851 portraying that courageous decision. We know about Washington’s wooden teeth, or we think we do since that is another slightly bent story about our first president (the real story of Washington’s dental problems are even more fascinating than the myth about his wooden teeth).

    We know, too, that General Washington led the American rebels against the British army and that he was America’s first president, a man who very reluctantly agreed to a second term. Some of us even know that he was involved in the French and Indian War as a very young man. But that is about the limit, if not beyond the limit, for most casual observers of American history.

    But how does a man become George Washington? What stroke of luck placed him in the right place at precisely the time his young country needed someone exactly like him? Would America be the country it is today if George Washington had not been there to lead the fight for its liberty and oversee its earliest days of independence? Those who wonder about such things need only pick up Ron Chernow’s new Washington biography, “Washington: A Life,” to find all the answers.

    Put simply, Chernow’s 900-page biography is as comprehensive as it is remarkably easy to read. Unlike so many history books and biographies that I have slogged through in the past, the pages and chapters fly by in this one. Mr. Chernow plucks George Washington from the mythical pages of history and turns him into a human being, a man with as many faults as qualities, a man who transformed himself into one of the most influential ever born.

    Chernow’s biography stresses just how private a man George Washington was despite the fact that he took great pains to document the details of his life. He was not a man given to public display of his emotions, preferring to lead with a quiet dignity and calm that never failed to impress those around him. He had a special charisma that allowed him to keep his army together under the harshest of conditions, even when it seemed the Revolutionary War might end with the American army simply walking away from the battlefield for good. He used that same charisma in his two presidential terms and had a strong hand in shaping how the United States government functions today.

    But George Washington is more than a mythical hero. That he shared the faults of his time and his class cannot be argued; that he overcame them, makes him more the hero. Chernow puts the flaws into the context of Washington’s times but that does little to lessen their impact on Washington’s image. The reader will be particularly struck by Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery. On the one hand, he had misgivings about one human being having the right to own another, and he always tried to treat his slaves with dignity and respect, perhaps even with affection in some few cases. On the other hand, he demanded that his slaves work hard on a daily basis, no matter their age or the weather conditions. Washington’s income, something he was stressed about during the war and his presidency, depended on slave labor and he did not free his slaves until his own death. (He even purchased teeth from slaves to be used in replacement dentures for the teeth he had lost – no wood in George’s mouth).

    Washington was a land grabber as a young man, having recognized that the easiest source of wealth (other than marrying it, which he also managed) in this new country was land. He involved himself in a scheme to buy up the land rights, at greatly reduced prices, of his fellow French and Indian War veterans before those men could exercise them. Much of that same Western acreage would be disposed of by a desperate Washington in his later years when his service to his country deprived him of the time to properly manage his several Virginia farms.

    Chernow tells the complete story. Washington’s flaws are offset by the greatness of his vision, and the reader cannot help but come away from the book with the conviction that things would have been greatly different for America if there had never been a Virginian by the name of George Washington. Without Washington, the Revolutionary War might not have been won, and even if it had been, the government we know today would probably be a very different one without having had his guiding hand at critical early moments in its history.

    “Washington: A Life” tells a fascinating story in easily read prose; readers should not be put off by its length. The best praise I can give a book of this type is that it makes me want to read more about the period and some of the other men involved. That is certainly the case with “Washington: A Life.”

    Rated at: 5.0

  5. Fred
    September 20th, 2011 at 09:44 | #5

    Rating

    I won’t buy a Penguin book in any form until they lower the price of eBooks. I don’t blame Amazon, but paying more for an eBook than a hard cover is outrageous.

  6. Richard Stoyeck
    September 20th, 2011 at 19:18 | #6

    Rating

    Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow should be required reading by all of us, including our children. For most of us, the images we have in our heads of the founding fathers were formed a lifetime ago when we were children. Today our children are forming those same images in their minds, based on boring textbooks and teachers that have only a borderline knowledge of Washington, or that matter an interest. Had I been fortunate enough to have had a book like this several decades ago, my understanding and interest in Washington would have been remarkably different than the lifeless, waxwork image that most of us have.

    Chernow makes George Washington come alive, and how grateful we should be for this. Every few years a new book comes out on our country’s first President, each one is pronounced the definitive one, and yet next year there is another one. What differentiates Chernow from all of the rest is his capacity to convey a living human being with an emotional life, something no other author has been able to do so far.

    First, let’s discuss the mechanics of the book. Without the footnotes and index, we are looking at 817 pages printed with a small font. It’s a big heavy book, but remember that many Washington biographies encompass several volumes, usually 3 or 4. Chernow was very reliant on the papers of the George Washington Project at the University of Virginia. This involves more than 130,000 relevant documents.

    First composed by John C. Fitzpatrick in the 1930′s and 1940′s, the papers occupy 39 volumes of letters written by George Washington. In recent years, this work has been expanded to 60 volumes, which now includes letters addressed to Washington as well as writings of his friends, family, and others who lived during his lifetime.

    One of the amazing statements I took out of the book was Chernow’s comment that we now know more about George Washington than his own friends, family or contemporaries did. The book itself is divided into six distinct parts. They are:

    Part I – The Frontiersman

    Part II – The Planter

    Part III – The General

    Part IV – The Statesman

    Part V – Acting the Presidency

    Part VI – The Legend

    I am going to describe an instance briefly from each section to give you a feel for how interesting this book is. Chapter 4 of Part I is called the Bloodbath. In it Chernow describes vividly how Colonel Washington trained 160 green recruits to take on more than 1000 French soldiers with 360 boats and 18 pieces of artillery during the French and Indian War. This occurred in May of 1754.

    It is obvious that America’s founder lost control of his troops who engaged in scalping, and other acts which the future President found to be degrading. Washington himself had to lie to his troops and tell them that additional soldiers were on their way to reinforce their position. He would regret the actions that took place in this encounter for the rest of his life.

    In Part II, chapter 17 Washington finds himself living in Cambridge Massachusetts adjacent to Harvard University, and regrets never having attended college. He lives in the house of John Vassall and encounters a young slave named Darby Vassall. Washington decides to take young Darby into his service and changes his mind, when the young man says, “What would my wages be.” What most of us would find to be humor, Washington found to be insulting.

    During this period of his life, Washington is described by different people in the following terms, venerated, truly noble and majestic, vast ease, dignity, always buffed and polished. He always had an elegant sword strapped to his side, and had silver spurs attached to his boots. When asked how he would pick an officer, his reply was that he must be a true gentleman, with a genuine sense of humor, and the reputation of being able to rise.

    In Part III the General deals with the revolutionary war. Chapter 28 is about the Long Retreat. Washington is so disappointed when General Benjamin Lincoln must surrender Charleston, South Carolina along with 2,571 men with 343 artillery pieces plus 6000 muskets. Normally soldiers are allowed to surrender with dignity and march out with their colors, but not this time. To shame the Americans, we were required to lay down our arms in silence. The choice was than given to become a prisoner of war or return home after a solemn oath to refrain from further fighting.

    This part also includes the Benedict Arnold affair. If you think you know the story, believe me, you don’t. Arnold comes through as an extraordinary American. Words to describe him include, fearless, racing on horseback to spur on his men, most enterprising, and dangerous as a warrior. Arnold had horses shot out from under him, and kept going. One of his legs was basically blown off, and still he would not stop fighting, refusing amputation; he was able to carry on. The first President of our country is totally enamored of Benedict Arnold.

    Arnold on the other hand felt betrayed by our country. Far superior to the generals he reported to, other generals took credit for the victories that Arnold won, and paid for with his body, in pain and parts. Officials in Pennsylvania officials falsely accused Arnold of exploiting his position for personal gain. The General demanded an immediate trial by court martial. Arnold felt that George Washington did not come to his defense, and this led to the ultimate betrayal. It is Arnold’s betrayal that has erased all the major battles he won on behalf of this country – sound familiar.

    In Part IV, the Statesman, we see George Washington as perhaps the first American celebrity. He is the most famous person in our new country, a position he is completely uncomfortable with. His brother dead, he takes his children into his home, and raises them as his own. If you want to understand Washington, listen to what Nelly and Washy, the two children say to describe the General. He (Washington) never spoke of a single act of his life, during the war. He was a remote figure.

    Part V is Acting the Presidency. Chernow used a term that makes no sense unless you read the book. The concept is not creating the Presidency, but Acting the Presidency. Washington felt and knew when he became President that every act would be scrutinized. His fear was that of all the branches of government, only the Presidency possessed the power and potential to slip into monarchy, and subvert the Republican form of government. He would avoid this slippage at all costs. Chernow also explores the concept that many things which appear to be of little importance have the ability to have durable consequences.

    Bringing it all together, I believe from this day forward, we will now have a definitive, reliable, and wonderfully readable story of the life of our most important American. Creating what we call America was a very difficult task, but it was left to Washington to lead a war to create it, to win the Presidency to create the model for everything that would come afterwards, and set by example how each succeeding President should and would conduct himself.

    We have no idea what America would look like if George Washington did not exist? We don’t know if America would have been at all, so much rested on his shoulders. Two-thirds of the colonists sided with the British initially. We do know this however. There were only two times in thousands of years of history when a perfect solution to the formation of a government took place. One was under Caesar Augustus, while the other was under George Washington. Now we have the definitive biography to tell us the whole story. Thank you Mr. Chernow and thank you for reading this review.

    Richard C. Stoyeck

  7. D. Zhou
    September 20th, 2011 at 23:19 | #7

    Rating

    Chernow’s “Washington” sheds light on a founding father that many students of my generation know little about. It’s refreshing to read this biography, especially after the magisterial work on Alexander Hamilton. The letters from Washington helps to fill in the gaps of the story we never knew and presented well by a master historian.

    It’s a long read, but well worth the long nights of stories about a great man. Undoubtedly, there will be some who look at this story and say that there are too many “ifs” in the story and call Chernow a one-sided historian as they did when Chernow wrote the biography on Hamilton. To me, these are parts of history because history cannot be seen as the definitive account of humanity as truths are socially constructed by the living. Chernow does an excellent job of pulling back the dusty curtains of history to give us a three-dimensional view of one of our greatest founding fathers, whose life has been shrouded in shadow by his taciturn nature and forbidding character.

    The biography, like other commentators have already established, is very extensive and give a detailed account of how Washington grew from a repressed young boy under a illiterate mother to become the great general whose stoic personality lead America to final victory in the American Revolution. Cinncinatus is resurrected in his best incarnation within American History with interesting analysis on how he chose to be an impartial leader who acted in silence to make the best of a precarious situation for a seedling nation known as America.

    In conclusion, this biography will be a defining authority on George Washington and his formerly mysterious life.

  8. Steven A. Peterson
    September 21st, 2011 at 18:01 | #8

    Rating

    A wonderful biography of George Washington. The author, Ron Chernow, is an accomplished biographer, having already penned lengthy tomes on John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton. This work is another triumph for him. And while short bios, such as from the American Presidents series, can be useful, there is nothing like a long detailed biography to give a reader a real sense of the subject. And the subject here is genuinely important–George Washington.

    The book is written in a literate fashion. It begins at the beginning, examining Washington’s childhood and his family background. It discusses some of the enduring characteristics of his nature and when these began to manifest themselves (e.g., trying to quell his ambition and NOT seem as ambitious as he actually was). We do see him trying to struggle to control his anger and to address his tendency to let his pride hurt his efforts (note as an example his continuing complaining over lack of respect, rank, etc. when he was serving with British forces in the French and Indian War).

    The book considers his early military career, success and failure alike. His “luck” that helped propel him higher and higher in rank at a relatively young age (although part of this was the death of close family members–so it was not all “good news”). He was nervous about the fact of his male relatives dying fairly young; his own health was at points precarious (including while he served as president). The book describes his ascent, his public life, his military leadership, his political persona. We get a sense of the real challenges facing him as commander of the Revolutionary force and his sometimes painful experiences as President.

    We also learn of a more private side–his potentially dangerous flirtation with Sally Fairfax and his engagement and marriage to Martha Custis. His marriage may not have been the romance of a lifetime, but the two made a terrific team and were full partners in their marriage. Martha was pretty much what Washington needed–plus bringing him much wealth.

    His views toward slaves was more nuanced than many in his time, and the book addresses that nicely. His frustrations as president and how the stresses wore him down is well told. The struggles for power within his cabinet would weigh him down (e.g., Alexander Hamilton versus Thomas Jefferson).

    In short, a biography worthy of the person.

  9. John D. Cofield
    September 22nd, 2011 at 05:16 | #9

    Rating

    Recent trends have made the reader of any new history or biography expect a healthy dose of cynicism as reputations are drastically revised and accepted narratives questioned. Any new biography of George Washington especially seems to demand such treatment because he has undergone such idealization that he seems too good to be true. Ron Chernow’s excellent new biography does wave away some of the incense, but actually confirms rather than dismantles much of the legend.

    George Washington was born the eldest son of the second marriage of a Virginia planter of excellent family but increasingly limited means. Young George grew up accustomed to uncertain finances and unsettled homelife. His father died young and his mother became more and more demanding and sharp tongued as she grew older. George never attended college and lived precariously, supporting himself as a surveyor, until an older half brother died and left him his Mount Vernon estate.

    Young Washington wanted a military career, but was held back by British prejudice against colonials and his own lack of education. His first foray into combat was embarrassingly unsuccessful, touching off what later became known as the French and Indian War. But even in his twenties Washington was already demonstrating the courage, fortitude, and common sense that later made him so successful. After the French and Indian War ended Washington returned to Virginia, married a rich widow, and worked hard to make Mount Vernon and his other properties successful. Eventually his reputation as a cool headed leader led him into politics. There he demonstrated that, although he was not a great speaker and lacked the imaginative flair of others, he was a great man and a great leader. It was those qualities, rather than military skill (he lost more battles than he won), that made men flock to him and remain loyal throughout the Revolution and after. And those same qualities made him the indispensable man to lead the new United States.

    Ron Chernow does an excellent job depicting Washington’s many fine qualities and contradictions. Among the most interesting of these is Washington’s attitude towards slavery. As he grew older he became more and more repulsed by it and eventually freed his own slaves in his will, but he also defended it as an institution in order to hold Virginia and the rest of the South in the new nation. He even went to great lengths to reclaim slaves who had escaped from him. Similarly, Washington dearly loved his home state of Virginia, but found himself increasingly alienated from other Virginia politicians like Jefferson and Madison who opposed his policies. More personally, he and his wife Martha had a long and happy marriage, but he also admired and enjoyed the company of attractive women throughout his life.

    Throughout this long biography we see Washington’s personality: calm, resolute, dignified without being humorless or priggish, and we realize again how lucky Americans were to have him during those eventful years.

  10. Anthonette L. Mcdaniel
    September 22nd, 2011 at 10:32 | #10

    Rating

    This biography brought me closer to Washington the man than I ever dreamed possible. It is a credit to Chernow, following in the footsteps of hundreds of others, that he still believed he had something unique to add to the literature on George Washington. What makes his work vibrant is the very thing that one Amazon critic lambasted: Chernow’s decision not to immerse himself in the offerings of Bailyn, Wood, Maier, et al. These academic historians have an important place in the canon of colonial history, obviously, but Chernow’s goal was different and his reliance on Washington’s papers at the expense of often narrow academic studies gives us a purer, richer portrait of the man. A true masterwork by a master of the craft of biography.

  11. sam adams
    September 23rd, 2011 at 02:47 | #11

    Rating

    Combining his extensive and thorough scholarship, together with his engaging and readable literary style, Mr Chernow has created a second biography equal to that of his superb earlier work on Alexander Hamilton.

    The book reveals,in great detail, the elements of Washington’s upbringing and remarkable life experiences which prepared him for his distinguished role in the founding of our Nation.

    The author has clearly set forth those qualities of character,perception,and leadership which enabled George Washington to take his place in history as the paragon of a new and unique genus–an American.

  12. William Alexander
    September 23rd, 2011 at 04:24 | #12

    Rating

    Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” really does not add much that is new or fresh to our understanding of Washington the man, although his inclusion of the recently catalogued Washington letters, artfully woven throughout the book, is long-overdue, refreshing, and welcome. Rather, what Chernow has done is set himself the task of finally collating the massive amount of scholarship on the “American Cincinnatus” into a unified explanation of Washington as we understand him. And I am pleased to report that he succeeds admirably, producing a solid, well-researched, engaging work of popular history freely accessible to most readers. And this alone is no mean feat. But what also stands out for me is the tone of the work.

    I am not going to summarize the main threads of the book’s arguments since the other reviewers have done so thoroughly and well. Suffice it to say, the other factor making this book so grand is its overall sense of balance. Chernow simply refuses to resurrect the breathless myth-culture of President Washington and present it as “fact,” but neither does he diminish the man’s amazing accomplishments. There is also no gloss of Washington’s often paradoxical – even sometimes Quixotic – nature and the more unpleasant aspects of his character and life, not the least of which was his not-so-well sublimated vision of himself as a “Man of Destiny.” Like Burlingame’s “Lincoln” I reviewed a long time back, what Chernow produces is a person of “whole cloth,” not an icon, and a person who had routine flashes of a certain kind of unique political genius and possessing what was, at heart, an elevating, evolving political conscience and sense of his place in history at exactly the right time and moment in the tumultuous history of the early American experiment.

    This book is not a valentine or a love-letter, and not a hatchet job. It is popular history done well, the use of sources measured, balanced, and up-to-date, and the clearest biographical picture we have yet, I think, of Washington presented again to the American public at large as he most likely was. While it is not a microscopic biography, neither are there any curious omissions or leaps in Chernow’s narrative of this fascinating life. Just first-rate all the way around.

    Readable, engaging, comprehensive, and lavishly researched. It would be difficult to ask for more.

    Highly recommended.

  13. C. M Mills
    September 24th, 2011 at 12:08 | #13

    Rating

    George Washington (1732-99)was, in the eulogy delivered by Richard Henry Lee “First in War, first in peace, first in the heart’s of his countryman.” Washington is superbly served in Ron Chernow’s splendid one volume biography of our nation’s first president. Chernow is the author of such masterpieces as his books on Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller. His Washington biography is 817 small printed pages which will educate readers whose previous exposure to Washington was the saintly marble man version seen in school textbooks.

    George Washington was:

    a. A fabulously wealthy planter who owned thousands of acres in Virginia and in the wilderness of America.

    b. Washington was a slaveholder of over 300 servants. He is the only one of the slaveholding founding fathers who freed slaves in his will. Washington, though, was a tough taskmaster who sought out runaway slaves and worked them hard from sunrise to sunset. He did not like to separate slave families and was friendly with his manservant slave Billy Lee. Washington knew slavery was odious and America needed to released from the curse of the peculiar institution. Washington deserves credit for seeking enlightment on slavery but is still culpable for holding human beings in bondage. He was a product of his times.

    c. Washington, as a young hero of the French and Indian War, was eager for glory, fame and wealth. He married the plain widow Martha Custis obtaining thousands of acres of land held by her. GW loved Martha who outlived him until 1802. The Washingtons were childless but raised the two children by her first marriage, grandchildren,orphans and other family members. The Washingtons were a kind couple. It is doubtful if Washington’s love for the married Sally Fairfax was consummated. General Washington loved to dance and spend time with beautiful young women; he remained faithful to Martha.

    d. Washington commanded American troops in the American Revolution Throughout the long eight year struggle he never gave up fighting such battles as Boston, Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, Brandywine and the final victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. The Americans were propelled to victory by the support of French naval and army forces. Washington refused to quit the struggle even when betrayed by Benedict Arnold; receiving scant funds from Congress for his suffering troops at Valley Forge. Washington knew the odds against defeating the British Army were astronomical. Without Washington’s military and politcal leadership it is likely the American Revolution would have been stillborn. He was the Indispensable Man!

    e. Washington was the first President of the United States serving from 1789-96. He was unopposed for office in both his elections. During his tenure the three branches of government were defined; the nation remained neutral in the conflict between England and Franc; a peace treaty was signed with Great Britain and America began western expansion. Kentucky, Tennessee and Vermont were added to the Union. Washington had Federalist leanings and earned the enmity of erstwhile friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who led the Anti-Federalists forces. President Washington was greatly influenced on economic matters by Federalist Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton served as Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson as Secretary of State. Washington quashed the Whiskey Rebellion being the only sitting president to don a military uniform while in office.

    f. Washington was a success as a farmer, soldier, statesman and president. He was the greatest American of the eighteenth century. His strong support of the United States Constitution and his insistence on a strong federal government and activist presidency molded the framework of American democracy.

    Countless biographies exist of Washington including the seven volume Life by Doughlas Southall Freeman and many good one volume accounts. For this reviewer’s money this new Chernow biography is the best single volume on the great Virginian from Mount Vernon. Our nation owes a debt of gratitude for Ron Chernow’s excellent biography. It will become a classic and a sine qua non for a study of George Washington. Excellent and essential reading!

    d. Washington was cold and aloof among strangers. He had great dignity but was in no ways cosy or folksy with others. He had a bad temper which he kept in check. He was a pefectionist; an orderly person and demanded the best of his slaves, soldiers and familiy members. He did not entertain fools gladly.

  14. Solomon
    September 26th, 2011 at 02:17 | #14

    Rating

    I liked Chernow’s other biographies; particularly his one on Alexander Hamilton, so much that I advanced ordered this book. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed. If I had to describe this book in one sentence I would say that it shows why Washington was a great leader and a great man. Below is further information about the book, how it compares to other Washington biographies, and some caveats (mentioned at the end of this review) that I think a potential reader should be aware of.

    Why should you read this book when you think that you know all you need to about George Washington? I think that you should because this book is wonderful, both in the writing and in the level of detail. Chernow is a wonderful writer. As with his other biographies, Chernow gives us a picture that goes beyond a stiff formal portrait. He gives us, what I consider to be, a fair picture of Washington, with his faults clearly delineated as well as his positive attributes. Here is not the Washington promoted to a saint-like status, rather a man who made the most of all the opportunities that came his way. A man who was not above ordering gold braid and a red sash for his uniform, and a man who took offense at slights (although when necessary held his anger to himself) and a man who bristled when he was appointed to a military rank that he felt was too low. However, he was also a man who learned by his mistakes (and Chermow points out a lot of them) and was above all; courageous, conscientious, honest, and hard working. He shows Washington the man – a man who felt handicapped by his lack of a college education, a man with a volatile temperament that he kept tightly under control, a man who could lead men but found himself leading untrained and undisciplined ones. He shows Washington to be human, a man who “… adopted a blistering style whenever he thought someone had cheated him”. Most of all he shows a Washington who prevented the dissolution of the army during the war and whose actions defined the presidency of the US. One of Chernow’s objectives is to show that Washington made his own decisions, after consultation with those whose opinions he respected, and contrary to the charge made by his enemies, was not controlled by men like Hamilton.

    What I found most interesting were the discussions of those aspects of Washington’s life that are generally not covered in one-volume biographies. He discusses the economic factors that eventually turned Washington against Britain. Chernow discusses Washington the businessman (both as a planter and a land speculator) and his dealings with his London agents. Contrary to popular myth, Chernow shows Washington to be land rich but cash poor, frequently to the extent of being on the brink of economic disaster. Chernow devotes two chapters (and parts of others) to the issue of slavery. He makes it clear that Washington did not like the institution, but he viewed his slaves as an investment that he did not know how to dispense with without bring about his economic ruin. Furthermore, he unrealistically expected his slaves to act more like employees or soldiers and could not understand why some did not, or why some ran away.

    Remarkably, Chernow makes Washington come alive without sacrificing details. My touchstone for a biography on Washington is the extent to which it covers his family, particularly his brothers. Flexner’s one volume condensation of his four-volume biography of Washington mentions George’s older half-brothers, but not his older half-sister or his younger full brothers and sisters. Chernow mentions them all. He also clears up the story of how George acquired Mt. Vernon, and how it got its name. Chernow also discusses Washington’s difficult relationship with his mother, a subject generally not covered in other one-volume biographies. The book also discusses such diverse topics as Washington’s teeth, his height, and many of his illnesses.

    This is a complete biography of George Washington. It is divided into six parts, covering his entire life. In contrast, some biographies only cover part of his life. For instance, Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of Washington focuses almost entirely on the revolutionary war. Chernow covers everything, devoting almost equal space to Washington’s presidency as to his leadership of the army. The book contains 30 black and white photographs of paintings of individuals, printed on high gloss paper. The quality of the photographs is good, but lacks the color of the originals, which is unfortunate.

    I think that there are two caveats that a potential reader should be aware of. This is not a detailed military history – there are no maps or detailed discussions of tactics. It is more about the man and how he handled the problems of the war, than a history of the war itself. Neither is this book a political treatise on the Washington presidency. Chernow does, however, show how Washington, by his actions, created the presidency – how he preferred a plain “Mr. President” to a more lofty title, and how he changed the Senate’s constitutional requirement of “advise and consent” to consent for actions he took. One should not take these caveats as an indication that the book was not excellent or is incomplete. It is just that there is a limit to what one can put into a single volume, even with more than 800 pages of text. Furthermore, this is a book about Washington’s whole life, written for a general audience. In this it succeeds admirably.

  15. Robert J. Crawford
    September 26th, 2011 at 06:29 | #15

    Rating

    Chernow has done it again. Though many pundits complain that America lacks “public intellectuals”, Chernow offers a wonderful reading experience that is both academically rigorous and yet popular biography.

    Washington has always seemed to me like an Olympian who rules from the mountain rather than a general, a rough and tumble pol, or even a businessman. He has certainly never appeared very human in my schoolbooks. We Americans have been brought up on so many ridiculous myths – I remember modeling my behavior on the cannot-tell-a-lie story about the chopped cherrie tree – but he is also seen as a neutral presider over the innumerable factions of bickering revolutionaries, i.e. the ultimate honest broker (I have never met one!). This wonderful biography truly penetrates the cloud around him to reveal the man.

    Alongside his career and times, Chernow investigates Washington’s motivations, emotional life, and methods. Washington was ambitious, shrewd, and incredibly self-disciplined. But, in contrast to his popular image, he was also passionate, complete with a fiery temper that he learned to keep in check with great difficulty. And he made plenty of mistakes.

    As the book unfolds, we see that Washington learned certain lessons from experience rather than books, shaping his attitudes in a uniquely pragmatic and practical way. Though born to a plantation family, he was not the prime heir, so had to make his way more or less on his own; to his great regret, he had very little formal education.

    After working as a surveyor, he began his career under the British military. In this way, he was schooled directly on how to fight on American soil, which was unlike the European theatres and served him well in his tactics when he later fought the British. On a personal level, he came to despise aristocratic privilege, which all too often reserved position and advantage to the mediocre and undeserving. This was a clear sign of both his self confidence and his ego. This also was a tumultuous beginning for him. Indeed, he oversaw the massacre of a French envoy by Indian allies, which some claim was the spark that led directly to the Seven Years War. He also suffered many significant defeats, though emerged something of a hero.

    Then Martha enters the picture. Benefiting from his reputation, he made a crucially important marriage to the widow, whose holdings elevated him the status of a gentleman farmer; for the next 16 years, he operated at the pinnacle of Virginia colonial gentry. Instead of leading an idle pseudo-aristocratic life style, he applied himself to his business, with real estate deals and experiments in the management of his estates, in particular cultivating a variety of crops rather than mono-crops such as tobacco, which exposed his neighbors to suspiciously fluctuating prices. Observing the debt that was ruining his cohorts, he came to distrust both faraway officials dispensing favors and merchants who promised to manage everything from the delivery of extremely expensive European goods to the sale of his crops, he moved towards self sustainability.

    His experience as a business man convinced him of the need for independence and self-reliance: alone among the founding fathers, he died a very rich man with minimal debt. When the time came for the revolution, he was ready to risk everything to preserve his political and economic autonomy. Of course, his choice was helped by the real estate holdings he had in Ohio, which the British were refusing to allow him to exploit!

    Risking everything he had achieved, Washington took over the disorganized and poorly funded American rebel forces. After his early catastrophic defeat in New York, he concluded that he would have to harass the British to gradually wear them down rather than confront them directly in the field (as they expected he would, given the European war traditions of the time).

    This led to an extremely long conflict that was aggravated by the incompetent confederation government. From this, Chernow writes, he concluded that the US needed a strong executive with the power to tax and act effectively rather than relying on Congress or fractious state legislatures to lead. This explains very clearly why he championed the Federalists later. Once again, this was counterintuitive to conventional wisdom: the colonies had revolted against the British monarchy’s policies and taxation, it was said, and did not want to replace it with another monarchical authority.

    At the victory, Washington retired with unsurpassed prestige, yet aghast at the chaotic mismanagement of the confederation government. To remedy this, and putting his place in history as the country’s liberator in jeopardy, he joined the Constitutional Convention at its very start. As a savvy pol, Washington had waited a long time to commit himself as he examined his options. In an interesting aside, Madison tutored him in the political ideas and vocabulary then current. From his experience as a leader and executive, Washington had strong ideas of what he wanted to do, but he shrewdly relied on his more learned colleagues for the right way to describe and sell it politically, lending his prestige yet appearing majestically above the fray and hence the logical choice to become the first president. That is true political artistry.

    As the pioneer exemplar of a new kind of republican government, aware of the value of symbolism, Washington established many of the norms of executive power and practice that have survived intact to the present day. Fearful of the country fragmenting into competing sovereign powers, he also strove to manipulate the political forces into a durable union. This entailed avoiding to address the issue of slavery and the economic system it supported, which led directly to the Civil War. Nonetheless, by delaying the reckoning for a few generations, he may have prevented the union from immediate (and permanent) disintegration.

    Another part of his legacy, which Chernow covers in wonderful detail, is his careful though unequivocal support of Hamilton and the Federalists. With them, Washington created the foundation of the federal system of government that has evolved until the present today. Though still controversial, the Federal Government can raise funds, maintain an army, take precedence over states’ prerogatives, and serve as a decisive economic actor even though the constitution does not specifically allow it. Once again maintaining the appearance of even-handed distance, Washington was the real mastermind behind the protean Alexander Hamilton, his political instrument of action. Chernow truly does justice to the immensity of this undertaking – it was the first republican government to rule over such a huge and socially disparate country.

    Chernow’s book is extremely long and dense, a genuine masterpiece that will be the definitive treatment of this amazing life for a generation to come.

    Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm. This cannot disappoint.

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