Book Review: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
“Instead of glorying in his might, he feared its terrible weight’s potential misuse.”
An encyclopedic survey of the life of George Washington. Well done, but Chernow was so heavily engaged in selling his theories of Washington’s personality and style that parts felt like the 2016 election campaign. “The most interior of the founders.” Pages of pithy epigrams by and about Washington. At 900 pages, it’s hardly “crisply paced”
“Things seldom happened accidentally to George Washington, but he managed them with consummate skill that they often seemed to happen accidentally.”
Modern availability and cataloguing of founder correspondence allows Chernow to explore both sides of many conversations, facilitating greater understanding of the bonds and divisions between Washington and Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. The book is worth reading for those insights, if no others.
“To obtain the applause of deserving men is a heartfelt satisfaction; to merit them is my highest wish.” George Washington
Some achievements bare repeating, as they are seldom noted elsewhere: Four times Washington was unanimously elected to lead the nation: Commander-in-Chief of Continental Army, President of Constitutional Convention, twice as President of the United States. The Continental Army gunpowder shortage was so chronic that Washington kept it secret from even from own officers. The Continental Army was the most integrated American fighting force before the Vietnam War. 5000 blacks served. Washington was the first of so many things we tend to underestimate the weight of his responsibilities.
“It is not in the pages of history perhaps to furnish a case like ours; to maintain a post within musket shot of the enemy for six months, without [powder] and at the same time to disband one army and recruit another within that distance of twenty odd British regiments.” George Washington
“It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater or more lasting effects upon the history of the world.” Geo. Trevelyan
The above quote refers to the battle of Trenton, but could be generalized to the entire Revolutionary War. Despite the odds and against the preeminent military of the day, Washington prevailed. He won by not losing and by living to fight another day. As early as 1776 he realized his strategy must be, “We should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything at risk unless compelled by a necessity.”
Excellent examination of Washington’s ambivalence toward slavery, seeing it as a curse on him, not by him. Like many supposed enlightened contemporaries Washington shifted burden of actually freeing his slaves to future generations. “Even the most loved slaves “never received the least mental or moral instruction of any kind, while she remained in Washington’s family.” Ona Judge, escaped slave. Chernow incorrectly credits Washington with being the best of the founders on the issue; actually that distinction belongs to George Wythe, who freed all his slaves during his lifetime.
Washington also never developed a satisfactory solution to the problem of the native Americans. Neither have we.
“By the age of twenty-six, he had survived smallpox, pleurisy, malaria and dysentery. Not only evaded bullets but survived diseases with astonishing regularity.”
One of Chernow’s weakest theses is that Washington wasn’t really a Christian, or if he was as a deist, like Jefferson. Just because gentlemen of that day used a different vocabulary didn’t mean they weren’t Christians. When a letter refers to Jesus by name, Chernow explains it away as probably “drafted by an aide.” Whatever his actual beliefs, Washington apparently thought himself divinely appointed to his task. And not just him: “Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him from the fates of all around him.” Dr. James Craik, eyewitness to his survival in battle.
“If he was really not one of the best intentioned men in the world, he might be very dangerous.” Abagail Adams
Death by sore throat. Five bleedings, the first ordered by Washington himself before the doctors arrived. One course of antibiotics probably would have saved him. (Not to mention what modern dentistry could have done for his teeth.)
“The simple Truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.” Abigail Adams
Yes, Washington probably had strep throat and antibiotics would’ve worked, more than likely. Wow, blood letting. The practice always seemed strange, a disastrous remedy. Glad research figured that one out. Thanks.