This volume by Ron Chernow is the best historical biography I have ever read. It is a combination of writing skill, historical accuracy, penetrating insight, and the subject himself. Perhaps a disclaimer is in order: I love George Washington. To my mind, he is far and away the brightest star in the annals of the history of our nation. You might even say that Washington deserved this exceptional, Pulitzer Prize-winning treatment. A tad long for some at 817 pages of text, but the subject demands it.
Here in the hands of a master storyteller Washington is rescued from historical revisionism as well as the caricature of the legend he has become. What is left is a man worthy of admiration. He lived up the legend as much as flesh and blood ever could.
That is not to say that he had no character flaws. Chernow hid nothing. Washington always struggled with being a little vain even if he rarely failed in public expression. He was ambitious, at least until he became weary of his incredible success that went beyond his wildest dreams. He was horrible managing money and though he had vast land holdings, he had cash flow struggles until he died. He wrestled in his conscience over slavery, but could never take the steps his conscience suggested.The politics of his home state of Virginia made it too explosive and he could never figure out how to balance his struggling books since if he set his slaves free he would lose financially since slaves were valuable. He was a product of his times, did nothing to hamper their later release, and at least struggled where Jefferson and Madison never did. Chernow suspects he had an infatuation with a married women when he was younger, but there is no evidence of adultery. He was good to Martha and her children. He was zealous in dealing with any cases of insubordination, even too extreme for some folks. And there was Jummonville. The beauty of this volume is that even after learning of his flaws, your respect remained high.
He was the hero of the Revolution and deservedly so. He was not a tactical genius like, say, a Robert E. Lee, but he had his moments. His success came from persistence, recovering from losses, molding a motley crew, making something out of nothing, and never giving up. Chernow handled this with aplomb.
Chernow also showed what a man’s man he was. Despite his love of fine clothes, he never dodged hardship. Chernow’s recounting of Washington’s horsemanship in crossing the Ohio River is one never to be forgotten. Washington was also fearless. In fact, he has no equal in fearlessness. Bullets never scared him. He always believed God would protect him till his time was done. In that every Washington family member except his mother died young, he never expected to live long anyway. He faced life-threatening health crisis several times in his life. He faced his actual death with his fearlessness in tact.
He had hardship. Chernow traces his relationship with his wretched mother. What mother what not have been thrilled to have had as revered a son as Washington? His self-absorbed mother did not and was a carping critic throughout his life.
Chernow did not hide Washington’s Christian faith. Perhaps he did not see it as strong as I did in a few spots, but he did not obscure a vital component to who Washington was as a person.
Chernow also summarized Washington’s life in a fair way. He did succeed as a President. Perhaps he did not think he had succeeded with all the bickering of his cabinet as he presided before the official start of political parties, but he was visionary in a way that no other leader we have had has done. He truly put his country first and blessed succeeding generations beyond measure.I wish today some politicians could bury their ambition, which is a human struggle for all, and put the nation first.
This is the first volume I would purchase in creating a presidential biography series. It is a treasure.
3 thoughts on “Washington by Chernow (Presidential Bio Series)”
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This was one of my first – and remains my very favorite – presidential biography. I wish they could all be as good as this one! But as you point out Washington provides great raw material and Chernow handles the numerous complex facets of his life extremely well. When I go back to re-read my favorites, this is sits at the top of my list!
Washington is incredible and deserved a Chernow! It is a superb meeting of biographer and subject, both at the top of their trade!