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--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)
About the Author
- File size : 12578 KB
- Print length : 930 pages
- Publisher : Penguin Books (October 5, 2010)
- ASIN : B003ZK58SQ
- Publication date : October 5, 2010
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Language: : English
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #14,943 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Top reviews from the United States
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And was impressed with his role in bringing about the U.S. Constitution. His presence alone was a stabilizing factor for those tense few summer months in Philadelphia.
Am now probably less impressed with his Presidency. Seem to lean towards Hamilton's centralized government approach and view the Constitution as a living document. And his push for a national bank was troubling as well.
As far as personal character. It was very solid in his leadership roles and in his family life and seemingly in his marriage to Martha. Was bothered though by how he treated his slaves. He was very strict and even harsh at times and would track down those who escaped. Yes, it was a different time, but, along with the fact that he had slaves, his treatment of them was often nothing short of cruel, yet he was seeming close to some of his slaves and cared about them. A paradox.
And he was very harsh at times on the troops under him. Yes, these were very harsh times and situations and many of the troops fighting for the birth of the new country wanted to and often did abandon the battle. Washington used harsh measures to try to stop the loss of his troops.
Chernow does a great job telling us just who Washington was and how he thought and what he was made of. The poor relationship with his mother also gives us a look into who he was and how he was formed. It seems that many greats in history credit great mothers and/or fathers for making them the person they are. Washington had neither, yet he became a great historic figure with strong character and leadership abilities .Where did these qualities come from then? Though that may be a mystery, I think that I know the Father of Our Country much better than before I read it. Highly recommend it. Looking forward to getting and reading Grant book. I'm a slow reader, so it will be a while before I finish the 900 plus page book, but I hear it's great too.
The primary problem I had with this work was that Chernow more often assumes the role of a psychologist than that of a historian. While it is expected that some "analysis of the psyche" be done by a biographer, Chernow puts too great an effort to get inside the head of Washington. Page after page is spent trying to discern Washington’s ambitions, his love life, his temper, his feelings, his emotions—the real Washington. Ironically this seems to only further obscure this figure to me.
Too often Chernow assumes what should be left to the reader to conclude. Sentences begin with statements as: “Surely this is due to Washington’s inner…”or “Washington’s insecurities were no doubt influenced by…” This is not history; it is the narrator’s voice getting to loud. I would rather Chernow had simplified his biography by stating the facts as they happened. Upon painting the picture, he could have presented--with far less dogmatism--various opinions (including his own) as to the inner mysteries of Washington.
Chernow did his homework on this book and much of his recounting is enlightening. He is a talented author and a great historian, and I learned a lot throughout this biography. It is a shame he spent so much of it speculating who Washington REALLY was, instead of simply stating who Washington was—and leaving the finer mysteries for the reader to decide.
I loved Chernow’s bio of US Grant. And I liked Hamilton. This one just seemed overly dense and 800 pages to prove a point.
I can normally read a book of this length in 4-6 weeks. This took me 3+ months because it just really dragged along at times and got monotonous.
It is borderline blasphemy for me to make such statements. Clearly Chernow did his research and wrote with passion and detail.
Who am I to criticize!!
But trimming and tightening this book up by about 200 pages would be a good strategy. I don’t think the novice reader would make it through this one.
I have now read close to 100 bios some denser than this one so I was able to get through it. Clearly it’s the book to recommend on Washington but I think trimming and tightening it somewhat would help it reach a broader audience.
Top reviews from other countries
"According to legend, Washington attended the Fairfax County election and ended up in a heated exchange about George William with one William Payne, who favoured an opposing candidate. Their confrontation grew so angry that Payne struck Washington with a stick, knocking him to the ground. When Washington got to his feet, he had to be restrained from assaulting Payne."
Now I don't know about you, but the idea of George Washington, first president of the United States of America, being hit to the ground with a stick of all things is the most entertaining thing I've read in a while. This isn't the kind of thing you'd find in your average dusty 20 volume biography, so don't for a second think that this is even on the same caliber. It's funny, it's witty and it's charming. There aren't enough good words about this book, so if you have any sort of interest in American history or the man himself, then I can safely say that this is a great place to start.
Oh and there are pictures! ;)
At 900 pages, Chernow stays on message and sticks to the point pretty much throughout, giving a complete portrait of the first President. All of Washington's life is covered, including family members, which reveals the crucial detail that Washington men had traditionally short life expectancy, his service in the French-Indian War, his early political career in the Virginia House of Burgesses, his leadership of the Continental Army, his seemingly reluctant Presidency, and finally, his long awaited but comparatively brief retirement.
What the reader is gifted with is not just an incredibly detailed and well researched study of Washington, but also a first rate account of the American Revolution. Having read other books on this subject, most of which were by Joseph J Ellis, it can certainly be said that this is additionally an informative study of the American Revolution.
Chernow provides a wholey objective and de-mythologized study of Washington, however, he does answer key questions as to why Washington attained such an apotheosis in both life and death, he led a ragtag, unprofessional army to a seemingly impossible victory against the greatest power of the day, he resigned his commission and threw away any pretensions of power returning to public service only through popular demand, and he exercised the office of the Presidency in a noble, non-partisan manner, which shaped the Presidency into the office that it is today.
Washington was often called the American Cincinattus, and this biography clearly shows why, as Washington is frequently portrayed as a reluctant participant in the public square, reluctantly presiding over the Constitutional Convention and serving two terms as President.
The main glitch on Washington's record, slavery, is shown largely in unfavorable light, presenting Washington as a half-hearted, would be abolitionist, full of empty rhetoric. Even toward the end of his life, he remained vigilant against escaped slaves, however, he did free his slaves in his will, something no other slave holding Founding Father did.
A frequently recurring detail is Washington's teeth (or lack of) and his makeshift supply of dentures (no they were not wooden, as popular mythology would have us believe) and how his public speaking, often breathy and rather quiet, was not quite as heroic and imposing as the popular imagination would have us believe.
Within this volume, Chernow goes against the somewhat fashionable intellectual tradition of portraying Washington as a Deist. Washington clearly comes across as a sincere and practicing Christian, although not as evangelical as some would like to believe. His invocation of the almighty is frequently tinged with hints of his Masonic background, speaking of the Great Architect or the author of all, however, there is little within this study that could reasonably put him in the Deist camp.
Overall, this book is strongly recommended to enthusiasts of American History, or anyone wishing a better understanding of the founding period, or a better understanding of Washington himself. A scholarly, readable, and highly informative book.
Washington's key gift to posterity was his refusal to turn the US presidency into a Monarchy (or rather himself into the King) that many excepted and would have welcomed. Prior to that it was his probably unique ability to hold together the under equipped and demoralised Continental army during terrible winters in awful conditions while Congress prevaricated and held back pay and equipment.
Chernow's produced an epic work with all the detail anyone, short of an academic, could hope for. It rightfully won a Pulitzer.
However, I have a couple of issues. The first is the tiresome adjectives applied to (mainly women), his mother was "shrewish", someone's wife was (pick from any number of words referring to her weight). Other than that we have the regular reference to how attractive or otherwise they appeared.
The other problem is while he attempts to grapple with the issues of slavery it seems equivocal. It feels like the premise of owning other people is accepted, as opposed to simply describing context.
This is always going to be an issue when writing about Washington, Jefferson and other owners of enslaved people. The question an author needs to answer is, would they write differently if they were imagining their own ancestors were the people being described, would this change their prose?
Great piece of work, highly recommended (with caveats) but let's hope publishers can engage and promote a wider diversity of biographers - the stories of the past will become richer and more informative if we start to depart from not just hearing from the white, middle aged males (and I speak as one).
The book is long but I had the time and an interest in the subject and found it very readable.
There is much food for thought contained within. How a new nation came about, what events caused it,
what part was played by various individuals. How the new structure of government came to be.
It is striking that so much disagreement existed on all matters and one wonders how enough agreement
could be obtained to proceed in a useful direction. That America has since prospered as a republic
is yet further food for thought.