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Washington: A Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 5, 2010
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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.