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.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2010
Chernow has done it again. Though many pundits complain that America lacks "public intellectuals", Chernow offers a wonderful reading experience that is both academically rigorous and yet popular biography.
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.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A wonderful biography of George Washington. The author, Ron Chernow, is an accomplished biographer, having already penned lengthy tomes on John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton. This work is another triumph for him. And while short bios, such as from the American Presidents series, can be useful, there is nothing like a long detailed biography to give a reader a real sense of the subject. And the subject here is genuinely important--George Washington.
The book is written in a literate fashion. It begins at the beginning, examining Washington's childhood and his family background. It discusses some of the enduring characteristics of his nature and when these began to manifest themselves (e.g., trying to quell his ambition and NOT seem as ambitious as he actually was). We do see him trying to struggle to control his anger and to address his tendency to let his pride hurt his efforts (note as an example his continuing complaining over lack of respect, rank, etc. when he was serving with British forces in the French and Indian War).
The book considers his early military career, success and failure alike. His "luck" that helped propel him higher and higher in rank at a relatively young age (although part of this was the death of close family members--so it was not all "good news"). He was nervous about the fact of his male relatives dying fairly young; his own health was at points precarious (including while he served as president). The book describes his ascent, his public life, his military leadership, his political persona. We get a sense of the real challenges facing him as commander of the Revolutionary force and his sometimes painful experiences as President.
We also learn of a more private side--his potentially dangerous flirtation with Sally Fairfax and his engagement and marriage to Martha Custis. His marriage may not have been the romance of a lifetime, but the two made a terrific team and were full partners in their marriage. Martha was pretty much what Washington needed--plus bringing him much wealth.
His views toward slaves was more nuanced than many in his time, and the book addresses that nicely. His frustrations as president and how the stresses wore him down is well told. The struggles for power within his cabinet would weigh him down (e.g., Alexander Hamilton versus Thomas Jefferson).
In short, a biography worthy of the person.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2010
This biography brought me closer to Washington the man than I ever dreamed possible. It is a credit to Chernow, following in the footsteps of hundreds of others, that he still believed he had something unique to add to the literature on George Washington. What makes his work vibrant is the very thing that one Amazon critic lambasted: Chernow's decision not to immerse himself in the offerings of Bailyn, Wood, Maier, et al. These academic historians have an important place in the canon of colonial history, obviously, but Chernow's goal was different and his reliance on Washington's papers at the expense of often narrow academic studies gives us a purer, richer portrait of the man. A true masterwork by a master of the craft of biography.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2011
This is an excellent, well-researched volume that is almost exhausting in its thoroughness, but is readable nonetheless. It's chock full of interesting facts and insights, and it humanizes an historical figure who can otherwise seem like a stiff, cardboard remnant from the past.
Only complaint? In the Kindle edition, none of the footnotes work...The links do not function and are inaccessible. A real shame because as one progresses through this tome, it would have been nice to be able to access these within context. I suspect there was a rush to the e-book edition here. Quite unfortunate.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2010
Ron Chernow, known for his epic and exhaustive biographies has found the perfect epic subject for his talents: George Washington. The result is a spectacular portrait of a great man rendered more human than ever before. Chernow's goal is not new: to recover the man from the myth, but never has it been done with greater success. Here we meet the many George Washingtons: the young, brash, 20-year old up-start, the devoted family man, the canny political leader, the businessman, the indomitable commander, the ambivalent slave holder, and ultimately, the reluctant statesman - all woven into one.
It is difficult to accuse Chernow of hagiography, as Washington's human flaws are out in the open: his life-long status as a slave holder, his insatiable ambition, and his, at times, avaricious hunger for land. At times we cringe at Washington's unreasonable treatment of slaves, or his business practices. Yet, the George Washington that is ultimately revealed is of a visionary statesman and a dutiful servant of the American people. Chernow's sections on Washington's service as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and as president of the young republic are a tour-de-force. In both sections we more fully understand the unprecedented nature of Washington's historical achievement: As commander, George Washington took a rag-tag army of colonists, surviving through constant threat of dissolution, weak-minded politicians, and personal betrayal, all the while constrained by a heavily-ingrained fear of standing armies among the population - a combination never experienced by a military commander - to defeat the most powerful empire in the world. As president, Washington faced similar circumstances, entering into office determined to bring order out of chaos, with a fragile, embryonic republic, surrounded by predatory colonial superpowers, in dire need of political and financial institutions, and time to grow and develop into a stable, nation-state. Again, Chernow shows us how Washington magnificently succeeded in this great historical assignment, setting America on a course to becoming a superpower, with a conduct marked by moderation, virtue, and decisiveness. Chernow brilliantly recounts the tragedies and great costs Washington experienced in the process: venomous criticism that disheartened and wounded Washington as never before, the betrayal and the loss of his friendships with Henry Knox, Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, Paine, and others. Chernow reminds us of the greats costs Washington experienced in service to our nation, rendering his contributions all the more poignant and profound.
Chernow makes wonderful use of anecdotal evidence as well: we find George Washington struggling to remain a dutiful son to his mercurial mother, doting over his adopted granddaughters, meting advice to his indolent nephews, and suffering through countless ceremonies and orations on his behalf. Although large, the book reads rather quickly as Chernow has divided the book into brief, fast-flowing chapters with an easy-to-read prose.
Chernow tackles a subject of considerable controversy - Washington's faith - with the latest research culled from Mary V. Thompson and others. In it, Chernow presents not the traditional, deistic Washington that has been portrayed, but a man who likely had a quiet faith that drove his dutiful approach to public service.
The greatest lesson from this latest study on the life of George Washington is that greatness is very human, often very flawed, but able to rise beyond human frailties.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2010
Many here have presented excellent reviews of this book with great detail of the structure of the book. I will not repeat them. What I particularly enjoyed about this book is the detail. Taken from letters, newspapers, journals and other primary sources, the author has presented Washington as he sought to present himself and as he was seen by those around him at the time.
In school we were never shown Washington the man, only Washington the myth. For me, this book overcomes that deficiency. In this book Washington appears as a "real" person.
To read, from his own letters and papers his concerns over money, fashion, and liberty, made the man come more alive than anything I have read, seen, or heard in the past. To read his concerns over farming and farm profitability, as well as his business deals and his political methods (not very honourable at first) showed him a man of flesh rather than of stone. His loyalty to Britain and his hurt when the British refused to acknowledge and reward his loyalty, and how this helped push Washington the loyal soldier into being Washington the rebel.
To read his personal conflicts over slavery, not simply its morality, but its economic utilitarianism, and yet his conflict over "what else could he do" because the slaves couldn't look after themselves so he was compelled to continue to hold them in slavery was fascinating in the insight it gives into every human being and the internal struggles and moral conflicts - and the sometimes twisted moral reasoning of our own age.
I was greatly intrigued by Washington's method of leadership. His reserve. His caution. His willingness to seek advice and to act upon it. A man who sought not to promote himself and yet - part of his contradiction - made sure that all of his papers were carefully copied so as to protect his place in history.
To read about the conflicts Washington had with Congress over money (doesn't that sound familiar) and the ominous ongoing conflicts with the states who were more concerned for themselves than for the good of the nation (with its ominous indications for the Civil War) helped to put Washington into his historical context in a way that I have never seen.
To further read about the conflicts in Washington's terms as President between Hamilton and Jefferson and the behaviour of Jefferson may compel people (as it did for me), to re-evaluate Jefferson and his contribution to early America and (as it will for me) to read more widely about this flawed man.
One thing that I did not value was the - far to often - speculation by the author about Washington's relationships with other women. "Perhaps. Maybe. Could have" are phrases that abound as the author implies that Washington had sexual relationships that were adulterous for himself, the woman involved, or both of them. He may have done. I don't know. The point is, the author doesn't know either as there is no written evidence, he is only guessing. This detracted from the work in my mind.
That being said, I felt this was a great book and I highly recommend it to all.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I walk by a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart's unfinished painting of George Washington that hangs in our dining room dozens of times a day. Yet, rarely does it make me contemplate the life of our first president. Thanks to Ron Chernow's new Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Washington, I have a new appreciation for this great man. It was also fitting that I read this book through our July 4th celebrations. While Washington is a very good book, I consider it shy of a great book (such as Chernow's Alexander Hamilton biography).
Chernow claims that over the years, George Washington has faded from our "collective memory that he has become an impossibly stiff and inflexible figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human." He also claims that "Something essential about Washington has been lost to posterity, making him seem a worthy but plodding man who somehow stumbled into greatness." Nothing could be further from the truth, and Chernow provides us a "cradle-to-grave" biography of how Washington grew into greatness as he led our country "from its colonial past into a more democratic future." The author breaks his book into six sections that include "The Frontiersman," "The Planter," "The General," "The Statesman," "The President," and "The Legacy." At 904 pages, the author is able to give us a detailed history of each part of Washington's life. He also fleshes out Washington, who was a man of great contrasts. He was a man of great passions, who tried to control them for the sake of his reputation. He had a fiery temper, which he tried to control as often as possible. He was greatly conflicted over slavery and made arrangements to free his slaves upon his death. Yet, he could be a hard master and tried to extract work from slaves who were old or disabled. He loved his wife, Martha, yet seemed to have passionate liaisons with other women. He never had any children, but raised Martha's two children and two grandchildren as his own. He also readily invited nieces, nephews and the children of friends to live at Mt. Vernon and to put them through school (such as George Washington Greene and George Washington Lafayette). He attended church services regularly and served as a vestryman of two parishes, but he never received Communion. He was a brave and courageous soldier, yet could be reduced to tears when he had to bid his troops goodbye at the end of the war. Although a Revolutionary War hero, he still wanted to live like an English Lord after the war. And for as much as he claimed that he wanted to retire simply to Mount Vernon, he kept getting sucked into public life.
It is difficult to distinguish what was Washington's greatest accomplishment--serving as Commander in Chief in the Revolutionary War, serving as President to the Constitutional Convention, or serving as our first president. To his credit, when Washington became president, he inherited a new government that was still "formless." The new president surrounded himself with the best minds of the day (Hamilton, Jefferson, Knox, etc.). While he surrounded himself with brilliant men, Washington's brilliance lay in his leadership abilities and his ability to run the country with the same efficiency in which he ran the army. Although his second term was fraught with bitter enmity, biting criticism and cabinet resignations, "Washington had endowed the country with exactly such a firm and good administration, guaranteeing the survival of the Constitution...In a wide variety of areas, from inaugural addresses to presidential protocol to executive privilege, he had set a host of precedents that endured because of the high quality and honesty of his decisions."
I was especially impressed with the enlightened religious views of Washington. In an age when many of our modern politicians would like to include more religion in public life, Washington was a firm believer in the separation of church and state. He recognized 22 major religious groups, including atheism. He "issued eloquent statements on religious tolerance." He "loathed religious fanaticism," and claimed "'Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds that those which spring from any other cause.'"
For as much as I enjoyed Washington, I did find some problems that kept me from giving this book 5 stars. First, I would have liked to see Revolutionary War maps. Also, I would have liked to see a map of Washington's five farms at Mt. Vernon. Chernow described in great detail quite a few Washington portraits, but he didn't include many of them for the reader. I would have especially liked to see William Joseph Williams' portrait of a beaten-down Washington painted in 1794. I would have enjoyed some photographs of Mt. Vernon. It would have been interesting to see a photograph of his dentures (several different versions still exist). Finally, I was interested in doing some additional research into the two Virginia parishes to which Washington belonged (Pohick and Truro). But when I tried to find their correct spellings in the index, they're not listed. I finally discovered them through trial and error on Google.
Despite these issues, I still think that Washington is a fine book and recommend it highly. However, I do suggest that you read Chernow's Alexander Hamilton as a companion book.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2011
Ron Chernow recognizes the overwhelming virtues and talents of George Washington while fully vetting his weaknesses. Chernow's challenge is to write a biography worthy of Washington while also delivering the modern reader a full picture of the MAN vs the ICON. The book succeeds and the reader is left richer by the experience.
Washington is a complex man. While severe, reserved and almost shy in public he was also a deeply warm person loving of his (mostly) adopted family and deeply sentimental towards the men who served with him in the Continental Army. He struggled to overcome an education cut short by the passing of his father, by teeth that rotted at an early age and position in society that bounced off a solid glass ceiling for most every young ambitious young man with no claim to wealth or title. Chernow empathizes with Washington; he needs to be a public man to unify the country and yet given his many maladies and deeply painful dental problems it must have been equally humiliating to be so exposed.
The book answers well in an unfolding narrative how this man became the most important person in the creation of America and the unique role model he had to be to avoid abusing his position and thus insuring the longstanding unity and democracy that defines America. The hotheaded and nakedly ambitious 25 year old leading men into the French and Indian War later become the mature, driven, demanding General that holds the Continental Army together for 8 years mostly through force of personal integrity. His 100,000 documents, letters, orders and communiques give some hint to Washington's lifelong commitment to the cause of creating and sustaining the United States. As Chernow points out it also gives us a better of idea of who he was than even his own friends and family knew.
President Washington understood that leaders needed to be unimpeachable. That their personal and professional ethics and avoidance of any conflict were more important than defeating an enemy in the field. Rarely in history has a commander with the near universal veneration and admiration of the people not become an emperor, king or dictator. His decision to stepdown might be his most lasting contribution to country.
And yet this was not the era of gentlemen politics. Washington endured harsh and libelous attacks; usually anonymously and from those he thought closest to him; Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Randolph and Ben Franklin's own grandson! He dealt with not only the politics of revolutionary (and powerful) France and England but equally the domestic politics that pulled parts of the country closer to both the England and France potentially splitting the country.
Chernow is not shy at all at showing the darker side of Washington, in particular his unforgivable perpetuation of slavery and failure to never speak out against it. There are sad but poignant anecdotes of how Washington and Martha treated and viewed slaves where they believed themselves enlightened and yet were often cruel and demanding. It's hard reading.
I took one star off for some seeming lapses in the narrative, most notably as the revolution is winding down but prior to the Constitutional Conference, the book seems to bog down in Washington's challenges with Mount Vernon and rebuilding his farms. I think this could have been covered in much less space. Secondly I thought there could have been much more description of the road to approving the Constitution.
And my final complaint - (ha ha) is that I wanted more! 900+ pages went by nicely and left me curious to read more.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2011
Not much to say other than another great job by Ron Chernow. Every bit as good as his Hamilton bio in bringing to a life a great figure of the American past. After reading a Chernow biography, you feel like you could climb into a time machine and go back and meet these figures and recognize them from the portraits he paints of them. He brings Washington to life, and tells us much about the times as well.
After reading the Washington and Hamilton biographies, however, I find it's hard to maintain a real positive view of Messrs. Adams and Jefferson. Especially Adams.