Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
The life of George Washington is not the stoic, myth-laden journey most people have fixed in their minds. As revealed in Ron Chernow’s excellent biography, the stoic man in paintings hid an emotional complex man who went from being a loyal British subject for the first two-thirds of his life to the individual who brought a new nation into being over nearly a quarter century.
Chernow beings by putting Washington not only into the context of his times, colonial Virginia, but also into the family dynamic he grew up and developed in. The first son of his father’s second marriage, Washington’s father died young like many of his forbearers leaving a void in his life that he filled with his oldest half-brother Lawrence. It was his brother’s service in the Royal Naval that would direct Washington to desire military success when he was a young man. However, Washington would lose his brother at an early age in a string of emotionally sting but ultimately fortuitous deaths that shaped his life.
Beginning with his brother Lawrence, Washington had the good fortune of finding and befriending influential people throughout his life. Learning early on, in trial and error, to be willing to service while not appearing to strive for service, Washington was able to climb into more influential circles than it had been thought possible at his birth. Even as he cherished getting military glory, Washington quickly took advantage of business opportunities throughout his life but especially land speculation and purchases.
Chernow faithfully follows the course of Washington’s life, but instead of just going from one high or low point to the next he fills in the details thanks to the massive amount of material he researched through Washington’s papers. Beginning in the French and Indian War, that he essentially started, Washington never truly found the glorious military moment he aspired to but the lessons he learned in his first war would be put to good use in the Revolution as he kept his ever rotating army together through one hardship after another.
Throughout all of his public life, Washington was plantation owner of a vast estate and holder of numerous slaves. Throughout his time in the Continental army, the Constitutional Convention, and as President, Washington thought of Mount Vernon and how it was run. At first attempting the try and true Virginia crop of tobacco, Washington switched to other crops and aimed to be a scientific innovative farmer to make his farms profitable but wasn’t able to establish his dream due to his public life. Chernow did not shy away from Washington’s slavery record; instead it was a major recurring theme throughout the book that was returned to numerous times including the lead up to Washington’s final days.
In examining Washington’s last quarter century, Chernow showed how Washington’s dissatisfaction with Great Britain being with little things but eventually grew into his becoming a leader in Virginia against British taxes. Chernow took Washington’s time leading the Continental Army to not only show his military decisions, but also his interactions with Congress which would shape his political outlook not only during but after the war for a strong central government. Finally, Chernow proved a look into Washington’s creation of the Presidency in relation to Congress and the Judiciary, to foreign and domestic affairs based on his experiences throughout the war and afterwards.
After finishing the book, the reader sees how Washington was uniquely qualified for the times he lived in and also a normal human being. Chernow gives the reader not a waxwork life, but a moving one that shows it was only Washington who could have done what was needed during the last quarter of the 18th century. If you want to find out who George Washington was beyond that he “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” then this is the book you need to read.
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