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