Washington: A Life
Author: Ron Chernow
Release Date: October 2010
** spoiler alert ** Plenty of spoilers follow, if there is such a thing in a biography about George Washington.
John Adams listed the ten talents that had propelled Washington to Fame in 1775, the first eight are as follows: 1) handsome face 2) tall stature 3) elegant form 4) graceful attitudes and movements 5) gift of silence 6) self command 7) a Virginian 8) and wealthy. Over the course of his lifetime, the first President of the United States benefited from several factors that would be laughable when listing qualifications for a President. Yet amazingly, Washington managed to set a standard in the office that has rarely been surpassed in terms of leadership.
I thought I knew a lot about Washington before reading this, but I was amazed at how much I learned and how much of what I thought I knew was false. This is an incredibly thorough biography. The author’s goal is clearly to give the reader an idea of what motivated Washington, what sort of person he was, and his effect on those around him. I read this book because I thought it would be fun to try to read a biography about each president, but this sets a pretty high bar that I don’t see many future presidential biographies topping. (On a related note, I’m eager to see what books on Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe say about some of the areas that they come off looking petty, or deceitful.)
I’ll lay out some categories below, so I can come back and compare him to the future presidents (and also because I love rating stuff).
Born into – As Adams mentioned, Washington’s natural athleticism and physical attributes greatly added to people respecting him. He also was often the recipient of several inheritances at timely moments due to family members passing away. Being born to a family with some status in the prestigious colony of Virginia also helped immensely (note how many of our first presidents were from that state). I’ve got to dock him some point in this category for being fairly lucky. However, no other man from his circumstances accomplished nearly as much, so I’ll give him a 3/5.
Pre-president – Despite being the General of the Continental Army, and being involved in the pre-French and Indian War, reading this book doesn’t exactly make one believe Washington was an amazing general. The battles he won were often similar to Bunker Hill, where both sides could claim victory depending on whether the land or total losses were the issue. The war didn’t seem to swing the Americans’ way until a victory by General Gates, and would certainly not have ended the way it did without the assistance of the French. That being said, the General kept the army together despite frequently not having money to pay the soldiers, food to feed them, or powder to use for their weapons (a miracle in itself). Washington’s role in uniting the country during the writing of the Constitution is often also overlooked, with two political parties coming together to elect him to lead unanimously. 4 out of 5.
Presidential career – Where did we go wrong as a country? Washington’s cabinet included both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, polar opposites on the political spectrum. He regularly consulted both sides and took great efforts to conform his ideas to the needs of the people. He was honest in his dealings with other politicians, and believed in those that worked with him. He shaped the role of president, particularly in dealing with separation of powers (while not becoming a despot), foreign policy, and a national currency/economy. As he became a federalist over the course of his presidency, he abandoned his Virginian roots and provided a foundation that could survive beyond his term. Even the more questionably decisions (such as the location of Washington D.C.) seemed to work out well in the end. 5 out of 5.
Vice President – John Adams was basically the invisible man throughout Washington’s presidency. Washington preferred to consult his cabinet members on all issues of the office. This was to be expected for this era, as the vice president was elected as basically the guy who finished in second place. Still, Adams didn’t really contribute in any way that this book mentions. 1 out of 5.
First Lady – Martha Washington was such a tragic figure; as each child or family member passed away, it was truly gut wrenching to imagine her loneliness. The fact that she spent months at a time with the continental army was also something I hadn’t read before. When Washington was in office however, she preferred to stay as uninvolved as possibly, generally only being mentioned in social gatherings. 4 out of 5.
Post presidency – Washington was ready and willing to step up and be the general of the army if needed in a war with France while Adams was president. Adams (and the rest of America) were ready to have him as well. Washington’s last act was freeing his slaves (with a few technicalities that the book goes into), the first founding father to do so. However, most of his post presidency was spent on Mount Vernon, an enterprise that he was never entirely successful at running. 4 out of 5.
Book overall – Great read, check it out if this review hasn’t spoiled it all for you.