Washington: A Life

Washington: A Life
by Ron Chernow
2010 / 928 pages
rating 9.5 (about as high as I’ll give a biography)

The life of George Washington has been mythologized almost to the point of fiction over the centuries and it is really too bad because he really was an incredible man and the United States was extraordinarily lucky to have him as its first president.

Chernow gets beyond the myth without dragging the subject through a bunch of muck.  He reveals more of the actual character of Washington which has led to his being mythologized,  his leadership skills,  his reticence,  his charm and dignity,  while also bringing to light less noble features,  his anger, his ambition, his lack of finance skills.

There isn’t a lot to work with when writing a biography of Washington – he kept his thoughts pretty much to himself, off the paper,  perhaps not even discuss them with friends.   But Chernow has written the longest and most complete biography to date and it’s fascinating as well as wonderfully written,  yet … Washington is still a bit mysterious, he takes on the colors of his biographers and Chernow,  I believe,  succumbed to the charm.

Born into a moderately wealthy plantation family Washington trained as a land surveyor and traveled before he joined the military.  In the service he was a “fine physical specimen of manhood,”  especially on horseback and brave and decisive in his campaigns, which,  in spite of often failing,  increased his personal reputation for being fearless rather than reckless.

He struggled to keep his finances in check because his spending habits were often beyond his means.  He joined the legislature in Virginia,  married well,  and became involved in the struggle for independence.   Having his military background he was selected as commander in chief of the armed forces and carried that off to wide public acclaim.  So he was elected president – although he says he didn’t really want it – do we believe him?   Maybe.   Who else would be as virtuous and self-sacrificing and strong and – well – who else had the public’s support to that extent?

But public support didn’t mean there was no factionalism – indeed, the amount of disharmony in politics at the time quite unnerved Washington and although he tried to stay impartial,  above it,  it did take its toll.

The last part,  Washington presidency,  was fascinating to me.  His thoughts about his contemporaries and the political infighting,   on the French Revolution and foreign affairs  in general were fascinating.  The bits about his private life were okay – better about his treatment of slaves and family.  I’d like to reread that –  actually,  considering I listened to this book,  there is probably much I missed and should probably get a print version.

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