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.