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Washington: A Life Paperback – September 27, 2011


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 928 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (September 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143119966
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143119968
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (416 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #12,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Ron Chernow Shares Surprising Facts About George Washington

--Washington was the only major founder who lacked a college education. John Adams went to Harvard, James Madison to Princeton, and Alexander Hamilton to Columbia, making Washington self-conscious about what he called his “defective education.”

--Washington never had wooden teeth. He wore dentures that were made of either walrus or elephant ivory and were fitted with real human teeth. Over time, as the ivory got cracked and stained, it resembled the grain of wood. Washington may have purchased some of his teeth from his own slaves.

--Washington had a strangely cool and distant relationship with his mother. During the Revolutionary War and her son’s presidency, she never uttered a word of praise about him and she may even have been a Tory. No evidence exists that she ever visited George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon. Late in the Revolutionary War, Mary Washington petitioned the Virginia legislature for financial relief, pleading poverty—and, by implication, neglect by her son. Washington, who had been extremely generous to his mother, was justly indignant.

--Even as a young man, Washington seemed to possess a magical immunity to bullets. In one early encounter in the French and Indian War, he absorbed four bullets in his coat and hat and had two horses shot from under him yet emerged unscathed. This led one Indian chief to predict that some higher power was guiding him to great events in the future.

--By age 30 Washington had survived smallpox, malaria, dysentery, and other diseases. Although he came from a family of short-lived men, he had an iron constitution and weathered many illnesses that would have killed a less robust man. He lived to the age of 67.

--While the Washingtons were childless—it has always been thought that George Washington was sterile—they presided over a household teeming with children. Martha had two children from her previous marriage and she and George later brought up two grandchildren as well, not to mention countless nieces and nephews.

--That Washington was childless proved a great boon to his career. Because he had no heirs, Americans didn’t worry that he might be tempted to establish a hereditary monarchy. And many religious Americans believed that God had deliberately deprived Washington of children so that he might serve as Father of His Country.

--Though he tried hard to be fair and took excellent medical care of his slaves, Washington could be a severe master. His diaries reveal that during one of the worst cold snaps on record in Virginia—when Washington himself found it too cold to ride outside—he had his field slaves out draining swamps and performing other arduous tasks.

--For all her anxiety about being constantly in a battle zone, Martha Washington spent a full half of the Revolutionary War with her husband—a major act of courage that has largely gone unnoticed.

--Washington was obsessed with his personal appearance, which extended to his personal guard during the war. Despite wartime austerity and a constant shortage of soldiers, he demanded that all members of his personal guard be between 5'8" and 5'10"; a year later, he narrowed the range to 5'9" to 5'10."

--While Washington lost more battles than he won, he still ranks as a great general. His greatness lay less in his battlefield brilliance—he committed some major strategic blunders—than in his ability to hold his ragged army intact for more than eight years, keeping the flame of revolution alive.

--Washington ran his own spy network during the war and was often the only one privy to the full scope of secret operations against the British. He anticipated many techniques of modern espionage, including the use of misinformation and double agents.

--Washington tended his place in history with extreme care. Even amid wartime stringency, he got Congress to appropriate special funds for a full-time team of secretaries who spent two years copying his wartime papers into beautiful ledgers.

--For thirty years, Washington maintained an extraordinary relationship with his slave and personal manservant William Lee, who accompanied him throughout the Revolutionary War and later worked in the presidential mansion. Lee was freed upon Washington’s death and given a special lifetime annuity.

--The battle of Yorktown proved the climactic battle of the revolution and the capstone of Washington’s military career, but he initially opposed this Franco-American operation against the British—a fact he later found hard to admit.

--Self-conscious about his dental problems, Washington maintained an air of extreme secrecy when corresponding with his dentist and never used such incriminating words as ‘teeth’ or ‘dentures.’ By the time he became president, Washington had only a single tooth left—a lonely lower left bicuspid that held his dentures in place.

--Washington always displayed extremely ambivalence about his fame. Very often, when he was traveling, he would rise early to sneak out of a town or enter it before he could be escorted by local dignitaries. He felt beleaguered by the social demands of his own renown.

--At Mount Vernon, Washington functioned as his own architect—and an extremely original one at that. All of the major features that we associate with the house—the wide piazza and colonnade overlooking the Potomac, the steeple and the weathervane with the dove of peace—were personally designed by Washington himself.

--A master showman with a brilliant sense of political stagecraft, Washington would disembark from his coach when he was about to enter a town then mount a white parade horse for maximum effect. It is not coincidental that there are so many fine equestrian statues of him.

--Land-rich and cash-poor, Washington had to borrow money to attend his own inauguration in New York City in 1789. He then had to borrow money again when he moved back to Virginia after two terms as president. His public life took a terrible toll on his finances.

--Martha Washington was never happy as First Lady—a term not yet in use—and wrote with regret after just six months of the experience: “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else...And as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay home a great deal.”

--When the temporary capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington brought six or seven slaves to the new presidential mansion. Under a Pennsylvania abolitionist law, slaves who stayed continuously in the state for six months were automatically free. To prevent this, Washington, secretly coached by his Attorney General, rotated his slaves in and out of the state without telling them the real reason for his actions.

--Washington nearly died twice during his first term in office, the first time from a tumor on his thigh that may have been from anthrax or an infection, the second time from pneumonia. Many associates blamed his sedentary life as president for the sudden decline in his formerly robust health and he began to exercise daily.

--Tired of the demands of public life, Washington never expected to serve even one term as president, much less two. He originally planned to serve for only a year or two, establish the legitimacy of the new government, then resign as president. Because of one crisis after another, however, he felt a hostage to the office and ended up serving two full terms. For all his success as president, Washington frequently felt trapped in the office.

--Exempt from attacks at the start of his presidency, Washington was viciously attacked in the press by his second term. His opponents accused him of everything from being an inept general to wanting to establish a monarchy. At one point, he said that not a single day had gone by that he hadn’t regretted staying on as president.

--Washington has the distinction of being the only president ever to lead an army in battle as commander-in-chief. During the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, he personally journeyed to western Pennsylvania to take command of a large army raised to put down the protest against the excise tax on distilled spirits.

--Two of the favorite slaves of George and Martha Washington—Martha’s personal servant, Ona Judge and their chef Hercules—escaped to freedom at the end of Washington’s presidency. Washington employed the resources of the federal government to try to entrap Ona Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and return her forcibly to Virginia. His efforts failed.

--Washington stands out as the only founder who freed his slaves, at least the 124 who were under his personal control. (He couldn’t free the so-called ‘dower slaves’ who came with his marriage to Martha.) In his will, he stipulated that the action was to take effect only after Martha died so that she could still enjoy the income from those slaves.

--After her husband died, Martha grew terrified at the prospect that the 124 slaves scheduled to be freed after her death might try to speed up the timetable by killing her. Unnerved by the situation, she decided to free those slaves ahead of schedule only a year after her husband died.

--Like her husband, Martha Washington ended up with a deep dislike of Thomas Jefferson, whom she called “one of the most detestable of mankind.” When Jefferson visited her at Mount Vernon before he became president, Martha said that it was the second worst day of her life—the first being the day her husband died.

(Photo of Ron Chernow © Nina Subin)

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. An unabridged edition of Chernow's acclaimed biography of America's patriarch, on its face may not seem an obvious selection for general audiobook listeners who are not avid history buffs, but Scott Brick's talented performance makes the hours fly by. As Chernow chips away at larger-than-life myths while exploring the practical qualities that shaped Washington's success, Brick provides compelling vocal inflection in portraying the narrative's many personal and political dramas. Some of the most emotionally powerful renderings include the passages related to Washington's struggles with the issue of slavery and the experiences of daily life in the slave community on his plantations and in the family household. Brick's reading of the later sections of the book focused on the depth of animosity between Washington and Thomas Jefferson also pack an especially effective bite. A Penguin Press hardcover. (Nov.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Ron Chernow won the National Book Award in 1990 for his first book, The House of Morgan, and his second book, The Warburgs, won the Eccles Prize as the Best Business Book of 1993. His biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan, was a national bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

Customer Reviews

The book is very well written and easy to read.
Kathleen Medwid
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.
John B.
Ron Chernow really did a great job bringing George Washington to life as a person, as a human being.
FrankX54

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

512 of 529 people found the following review helpful By Eileen Pollock on October 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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...Read more ›
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264 of 275 people found the following review helpful By John B. TOP 500 REVIEWER on October 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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181 of 197 people found the following review helpful By Richad of Connecticut VINE VOICE on October 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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