532 of 549 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2010
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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...'" I approached this book with some trepidation - so long, so detailed, another Washington biography? Why read it? To find out how Washington did it. To study his character. To be inspired. To understand the virtue in moderation and self control. To feel, far beyond the cliche, proud to be an American.
276 of 287 people found the following review helpful
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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. 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.
185 of 201 people found the following review helpful
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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
226 of 264 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2010
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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, this book is too detailed, too dense, and yes, folks, it is actually 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.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2010
Chernow's "Washington: A Life" really does not add much that is new or fresh to our understanding of Washington the man, although his inclusion of the recently catalogued Washington letters, artfully woven throughout the book, is long-overdue, refreshing, and welcome. Rather, what Chernow has done is set himself the task of finally collating the massive amount of scholarship on the "American Cincinnatus" into a unified explanation of Washington as we understand him. And I am pleased to report that he succeeds admirably, producing a solid, well-researched, engaging work of popular history freely accessible to most readers. And this alone is no mean feat. But what also stands out for me is the tone of the work.
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.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2010
Chernow's "Washington" sheds light on a founding father that many students of my generation know little about. It's refreshing to read this biography, especially after the magisterial work on Alexander Hamilton. The letters from Washington helps to fill in the gaps of the story we never knew and presented well by a master historian.
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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2010
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Simply an amazing biography of George Washington! Comparable to James Flexner's bio, this is far more detailed in the fact that Chernow not so much breaks down the mythical ediface of Washington but explains him in such detail that the reader can actually get a sense of who he really was. Chernow digs deep into Washington's mind by citing the facts and primary sources that make him far more human than mythical. Though critcal of Washington on many issues, he is fair in reavealing that GW was driven by many normal human ambitions and was very critical about his image and his reputation. This was a great read and a must read for any American history reader who wants to learn more and enjoy learning about GW and the times he lived in.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2010
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Ron Chernow, the author of a rare and needed biography on Alexander Hamilton, has penned one on the ultimate Founding Father, George Washington. Washington buffs steeped in Flexner's Indispensable Man will find little new here although Chernow devotes a great deal more time to the inner workings of Washington's mind, e.g. his constant striving for self-improvement and consistency, his feelings towards slavery and African-Americans. Also, the book tends to lose steam factually toward the end, e.g. his explanation of Washington's involvement in Potomac canals, the number of United States in the last years of Washington's administration etc. Still, the book is an entertaining read and a good introduction for those new to the subject.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2010
This was a very in depth look at our first President. Chernow works hard to bring a realistic portrait of Washington and how he was viewed by others in his time. But I must say there were a lot of impetuous men in those days, as that seems to be the most frequent one word description Chernow applies of nearly everyone whom Washington can into contact. I came away from the book overall with a better understanding of what risks our forefathers undertook and how perilously close they came to failing. Had that been today's Congress, we would still all be POMEs (prisoners of mother england).
One grip I have with later 20th Century and early 21st Century historians is their need to explain away views and beliefs in the past that have since been disproved in a way to not bring down our belittlement on historical heros becasue they did not know or share the current views of society. Chernow attempts to make Washington's views on slavery as a life long internal struggle. I doubt that. Rather his views probably more closely echoed those of Martha who couldn't understand why her house slave ran away after she was taken care of so well.
Washington, Jefferson, Monroe et.al., were aristocratic southern planters through and through. And while there may be some slight differences in how they treated their slaves versus the stereotypical picture we have been taught tha tall slave owners were cruel and heartless, nevertheless they did view and treat them as slaves. We need to stand up and simply say so. That that was the main view of that day and it took another 200 plus years and lots of blood shed and inhumanity to change that. But that doesn't take away from what any of these men struggled to accomplish. Likewise to attempt to paint Abigail Adams or Marhta Washington or Dolly Madison as some type of proto-type feminist gets very hard to fathom. We need to accept the way history was at the time it was made and shy away from the revisionist attempts to paint it in a light more favorable to our current views.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Recent trends have made the reader of any new history or biography expect a healthy dose of cynicism as reputations are drastically revised and accepted narratives questioned. Any new biography of George Washington especially seems to demand such treatment because he has undergone such idealization that he seems too good to be true. Ron Chernow's excellent new biography does wave away some of the incense, but actually confirms rather than dismantles much of the legend.
George Washington was born the eldest son of the second marriage of a Virginia planter of excellent family but increasingly limited means. Young George grew up accustomed to uncertain finances and unsettled homelife. His father died young and his mother became more and more demanding and sharp tongued as she grew older. George never attended college and lived precariously, supporting himself as a surveyor, until an older half brother died and left him his Mount Vernon estate.
Young Washington wanted a military career, but was held back by British prejudice against colonials and his own lack of education. His first foray into combat was embarrassingly unsuccessful, touching off what later became known as the French and Indian War. But even in his twenties Washington was already demonstrating the courage, fortitude, and common sense that later made him so successful. After the French and Indian War ended Washington returned to Virginia, married a rich widow, and worked hard to make Mount Vernon and his other properties successful. Eventually his reputation as a cool headed leader led him into politics. There he demonstrated that, although he was not a great speaker and lacked the imaginative flair of others, he was a great man and a great leader. It was those qualities, rather than military skill (he lost more battles than he won), that made men flock to him and remain loyal throughout the Revolution and after. And those same qualities made him the indispensable man to lead the new United States.
Ron Chernow does an excellent job depicting Washington's many fine qualities and contradictions. Among the most interesting of these is Washington's attitude towards slavery. As he grew older he became more and more repulsed by it and eventually freed his own slaves in his will, but he also defended it as an institution in order to hold Virginia and the rest of the South in the new nation. He even went to great lengths to reclaim slaves who had escaped from him. Similarly, Washington dearly loved his home state of Virginia, but found himself increasingly alienated from other Virginia politicians like Jefferson and Madison who opposed his policies. More personally, he and his wife Martha had a long and happy marriage, but he also admired and enjoyed the company of attractive women throughout his life.
Throughout this long biography we see Washington's personality: calm, resolute, dignified without being humorless or priggish, and we realize again how lucky Americans were to have him during those eventful years.