Friday, September 11, 2015

Book Review: Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow (2010)

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow, 2010. The painting on the front cover is by Rembrandt Peale.

Bust of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785. This sculpture is thought to be one of the best likenesses of Washington.

Author Ron Chernow.
Ron Chernow’s massive 2010 cradle-to-grave biography of George Washington, called simply Washington: A Life, is a superb achievement. It’s valid to ask if we really need another biography of George Washington, one of the most chronicled of all our Founding Fathers, but Chernow’s book is invaluable. The scope of Washington: A Life is immense, but the book succeeds because of Chernow’s excellent writing and his razor-sharp insights into Washington’s personality. 

Chernow digs deeply into Washington’s life to get the reader as close as possible to the actual person, not the dignified marble statue Washington is sometimes presented as. Chernow relies heavily on Washington’s own diary entries and letters, and this allows him to examine Washington’s personality. Washington was a complex man, and Chernow emphasizes the contradictions inherent in Washington’s life, as this fighter for liberty was also the owner of many slaves. Some of Chernow’s best writing throughout the book is about Washington and his ambivalent relationship with slavery. Washington was clearly uncomfortable with the institution, yet he never publicly called for emancipation. However, he was the only Founding Father who freed his slaves after his death. (But Washington couldn’t free all of the slaves at Mount Vernon because many of them had belonged to Martha before their marriage.)

George Washington was a man who sought to always be the master of his emotions, but he had a fiery temper that sometimes got the best of him, as when he cursed out the incompetent General Charles Lee after the battle of Monmouth. (p.342) Washington’s deep passion is revealed in some of his letters, despite his best efforts to subdue it. It’s clear that before his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was infatuated with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his neighbor and good friend George William Fairfax. In letters to Sally, Washington shows a more tender side and historians have long debated the exact nature of their relationship. In 1798, just a year before his death, Washington wrote to Sally Fairfax that none of his many amazing experiences in life “have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments-the happiest of my life-which I have enjoyed in your company.” (p.778) Regardless of whether or not Sally Fairfax and Washington had a physical relationship, it’s clear that she was a deeply important person in his life. 

Another of Washington’s contradictions is that even though he was very humble, he clearly had one eye on his historical reputation. While the Revolutionary War was still going on, Washington had several aides transcribe and copy all of his wartime letters. The project took two years to complete, and the letters filled 28 volumes. Washington wrote: “I am fully convinced that neither the present age or posterity will consider the time and labor which have been employed in accomplishing it unprofitably spent.” (p.445) Washington was certainly correct about that. 

Washington’s powerful physicality added to the heroic mystique surrounding him. My favorite anecdote from the book was told by the artist Charles Willson Peale. Peale painted the 40-year-old Washington in 1772, and when he was visiting Mount Vernon he saw an example of Washington’s prodigious strength. Peale and some other young men were “pitching the bar,” which was a game of strength in which competitors threw a log or pole as far as they could. Washington came upon the players and briefly joined the game. His toss of the bar landed much farther than anyone else’s had. Washington said as he left, “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.” (p.123) 

Chernow fully captures Washington’s towering physical presence. Tall, and extremely muscular, Washington filled out his Continental Army uniform very well, and he always carried himself with dignity and grace. In a letter to his tailor, Washington recorded his own height as six feet, but his upright bearing usually made contemporary observers add two inches to his height. Washington displayed immense physical courage throughout his life, and he braved volleys of gunfire many times. Native American tribes who had fought against Washington in the French and Indian Wars even thought he might be protected by supernatural forces because of his incredible luck in battle.  (p.61) 

What amazes me the most about George Washington is how he consistently turned away from power when he could have simply grabbed more. It’s one of the reasons Washington is such a remarkable figure. As Chernow writes, “The hallmark of Washington’s career was that he didn’t seek power but let it come to him.” (p.186) When Washington resigned his commission in the Continental Army after the end of Revolutionary War; it signaled that the United States would not become a military dictatorship, even though it would have been easy for Washington to be swept directly into power following the end of the war. After witnessing Washington’s resignation, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Washington, “The moderation and virtue of a single character…probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.” (p.456) 

George Washington was a truly amazing man, and it’s easy to see how he became such a mythical figure in American history. This mythology began during Washington’s own life, but fortunately, Ron Chernow knows that Washington’s accomplishments need no protective mythology surrounding them. By bringing us closer to the flesh and blood George Washington, Chernow proves that despite his failings, Washington is still worthy of veneration.

No comments: