473 of 489 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Washington For Our Time
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,...
Published on October 5, 2010 by Eileen Pollock
209 of 240 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How can Washington be boring?
Let me begin by saying that this work is unquestionably the most complete biography of Washington that I've ever read. Author Ron Chernow makes thorough use of many never-before-available sources of Washington's life to create this comprehensive text. While I hesitate to say it and thus risk offending serious Washington scholars, I feel I must: for the average reader,...
Published on December 19, 2010 by E. Jacobs
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473 of 489 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Washington For Our Time,
243 of 253 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, well-written and complete,
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 was 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. For instance,Chernow shows how Washington 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.
174 of 190 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Discover George Washington and Discover Our Country!!!,
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
209 of 240 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How can Washington be boring?,
Washington is one of the almost inarguable heroes of American history, despite being a flawed human being just like anyone else. Chernow takes the reader through exactly what is promised--the life of Washington, from birth to death. Many readers will already be familiar with the most famous of the events in Washington's life, so the niche that this book perhaps would fill is to provide detail that other biographies do not include. Unfortunately, I found these details to be mind-numbingly dull. By mid-book the reader has a pretty good idea that Washington had a mother who was a massive pain-in-the-you-know-what, that he was deeply conflicted about slavery, and that he really, really liked his clothes. But after awhile, the endless source documentation of each of these things did not add much to the knowledge base. At times it almost seemed as though the author were merely trying to get as much information on the page as possible with little regard for readability.
I slogged through this book over roughly 2 months, while reading others to break up the boredom. Was there a lot of information about Washington? Oh heck yeah. Did I learn some new things about him? Definitely. But for the average reader the information was is overkill. 5 stars for the dedicated research; 1 star for the storytelling. Both, to me, are equally important; hence this book earned 3 stars.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Popular History,
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.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Needed and Definitive Biography of Cinncinatus,
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.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An 18th century picture through a 21st century lens,
I think my main objection with this book is the same I have with most 21st century biographies. We have become a culture where journalists and now historians feel a penchant, if not an incumbency, to psychoanalyze the subject to death. While I appreciate the notion that to understand a man's actions we need to understand his psychology, the fact is that there is scant source material to back any of it up, and so we're left with a bevy of speculation that seems to be based on little but the authors own 21st century lenses.
For what's supposed to be an authoritative biography, there are far too many times in the book for my tastes where the author interjects his own speculation on missing pieces. More than any biography I've read before, this book contains so many "weasel words" such as "one would presume", "must have", "probably", and so on that it would make even a Wikipedia editor cringe. One glaring example is the authors seeming obsession with Washington's attraction to Sally Fairfax. Yes, in the few letters that exist, it's clear that Washington had a "schoolboy crush" on Mrs. Fairfax. But to extend these few pieces of evidence to make statements like "we will never know whether the relationship was consummated" is a bit of a stretch. Yes, such a statement is commonplace in the 21st century where promiscuity is rampant, but in the 1700s where only a few years earlier the crime of adultery was punishable by death, "one would presume" that infatuations seldom ran their full course as is so common today.
There were many other little things where the 21st century sensitivities (or lack thereof) grated on me. Once sentence describes Washington diary entry where he shot some bald eagles. The subsequent commentary goes something like "a curious triumph for the Father of His Country". Again, while not an unfair piece of commentary, I wonder how necessary it really is. It leads the 21st century reader to judge the man based on what we know today, rather than the world in which he lived.
The book also spends a lot of time talking about Washington's early life as a brooding, petulant child, as if a 26 year old man in the 1700s could be judged with the same measuring stick as a 26 year old kid today.
There is a portion of the book dedicated to that most controversial subject, Washington's religion. Because Washington lived by the principle of not flaunting his religion (which ironically is a Christian principle), there is not much source material on the subject. Over the years, many have used this to try to spin Washington into the image they want--some have called him a "Deist" who didn't believe in an active, living God, while others have painted him more as an evangelical figure whose every move was guided by religion. Chernow rightly debunks both points of view, providing quotes from his contemporaries as to what his beliefs were. While there are one or two quotes from people who questioned his religiosity, most people knew him to be a man of prayer who made private devotions in his library both morning and evening; tellingly, those accounts are from people who accidentally came across him during these times. But again, when looked through the 21st century lens and perhaps the personal bent of the author, many readers may be left to conclude that this was somehow rote or superficial rather than something which had a role in his daily life and his decision-making. It's telling that the author withheld any speculation on that front, while he was quick to speculate upon other salacious aspects of Washington's life.
There are plenty of examples like this where 18th century events are judged by a 21st century sensibility. While I understand the need of this to make these events readable and relevant to us today, I wish the book had done a better job of drawing us into the world as it was then so we could understand things through their eyes. Everything from the descriptions of slavery to the descriptions of how disloyal soldiers were treated make us cringe today, and yet these things were literally necessary for survival back then. That doesn't excuse them, but on the other hand by our predilection to focus so judgmentally on our historic figures' flaws on the past, we miss a golden opportunity to learn the things about their morals, and their strength of character that made them great. I see this book as a reaction to the "hero worship" biographies that have preceded it, but I do see it as going a little too far in the opposite direction.
I will not say that this is an unfair book, but it just wasn't for me. But it did get me to look up Washington's real diaries (available at the Library of Congress Website) to read the source material for myself, which is not a bad thing.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The master chronicler of the American Experiment,
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.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Washington Bio yet,
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chernow's Washington,
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Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow