Monday, October 18, 2010

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Published October 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Usually I start a book review with a synopsis, but it hardly seems necessary in the case of this book.  It's a biography so it almost goes without saying that the book begins at approximately the time of George Washington's birth and ends at approximately the time of Washington's death (although Chernow does explore Washington's legacy after his death briefly).  The highlights of what happened in between those two events are largely known as well: Washington married the widow Martha Custis, he served as the Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and was the first president of the newly formed union.

But this book is 817 pages long so you know there is much more here than the basic details of Washington's life.  Chernow has drawn extensively from Washington's own papers and correspondence, as well as other biographies and the writings of other important players of the time, to craft an incredibly detailed look into Washington's life, thoughts, and motives.  It's my custom to take notes as I read, but inside of 200 pages I realized that I would never get through this book if I continued to do that--there is just too much information that was new to me in this book.  In fact, all of that information made it almost impossible to get through the book; I could only realistically absorb 15-20 pages at a sitting.

George Washington was not raised as a pampered child.  In fact, his mother, Mary, drilled habits of thrift and industry into young George, particularly after his father died.  She was a hard woman and Chernow says that there was always a "cool, quiet antagonism between Washington and his mother."  Chernow believes that Martha's treatment of young George created a man who was "overly sensitive to criticism and suffered from a lifelong need for approval" and that "George became an overly controlled personality and learned to master his temper and curb his tongue."

It was interesting to me to watch Washington, who liked his aristocratic airs and fine things, went from being a wealthy planter, interested primarily in accruing wealth and deeply attached to the British way of life, become a leader in a revolution.  His disillusion with with colonial rule began with his military service.  Because he lived in the colonies, he was never able to become a regular with the British army which rankled him.  He became further frustrated by his reliance on British brokers to purchase goods on his behalf and to sell his own.crops.  He became convinced that he was inferior goods were purchased for him and that he was not getting full price on his crops.  But much of this reliance on British brokers was the planters own fault; they relied heavily on the brokers for credit and Washington was no exception, frequently running up enormous debts while continuing to order extravagant goods.  Reading this was like reading about current events--clearly we didn't learn a lesson regarding credit from our forefathers  Curiously, the very war that had brought Washington so much fame (the French and Indian War) and also resulted in massive debt for the British, a burden the leaders decided to shift to their North American subjects which would eventually result in the "historic anomaly of a revolution inaugurated by affluent, conservative leaders."

Washington's dealings with his slaves and his feelings about slavery were also interesting.  On the one hand, he was a better than most slaveholder--he trained a lot of his slaves for trades, allowed them to fish, have gardens and keep their families together.  On the other hand, many of them lived under horrific conditions, he was strongly opposed to allowing blacks into the army during the revolution and he didn't free his own slaves until after Martha's death.  Washington, an exceedingly hard worker, grew frustrated with his slaves because he couldn't get them to work as hard as he thought they should.  The fact that there was no incentive for them to work harder during the long hours that they were working seemed to escape him.

The view I had of Washington being a great soldier was certainly altered by this book.  His first ever foray as the leader of a group of soldiers resulted in a massacre and, to be honest, a great many of his Revolutionary War decisions were even worse decisions.  And yet, Washington frequently made brilliant decisions and made excellent use of the spy network he developed.  He was also fearless in battle--never a leader to sit at the back of the battle and observe, Washington always rode straight into the fray, something that his soldiers found inspiring.  As a leader, Washington was often criticized during the war by his own officers and aides, members of Congress and the general populace.  To be fair, Washington was sometimes indecisive but he was also hampered throughout the war with undisciplined troops and a Congress that was unwilling to give Washington the necessary support.

 Fortunately for Washington, he was an even better politician than he was soldier.  He was masterful at getting what he wanted, often without even appearing to have worked to effect change, and he was not above stooping to less than scrupulous means to come out on top.  In that way, politics of the time were not much different that they are today.  When we think back on the founding fathers, we generally think of them as being of a like mind, which the single goal of creating this country.  But there were just as many differences of opinion, just as much backstabbing and just as much in-fighting 250 years ago as there is now.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, was not at all a fan of Washington's and even stayed away from Washington's memorial service after his death. 

I'm not one to keep a lot of the books that I have read - the classics, the books I truly loved, and the books I feel I'll refer back to in the future being the exception.  This is one of those.  I can't wait to pass it along to my dad and get his opinions.  Having been an American History teacher for 38 years, he may not have as much to learn from this one but I'm sure he'll enjoy it.  And now that I've read this one, I'm eager to pick up other biographies by Chernow.  Thanks TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!


  1. What grade did your dad teach? I'm always fascinated with biographies like this, meaty and rich with detail. I very rarely read them, unfortunately. Every Christmas it seems for about the last 5 years or so, there has been a new big BIO of a former president and it sells so well during the holidays. It seems to be the dad gift. This may be this year's pick.
    Detailed, fascinating review. Thank you.

    I'm curious about the book you are currently reading. I had the chance to pick it up at BEA but it didn't make the pile.

  2. Great review Lisa! One thing in the book I would have liked to have read more about was Washington's use of opium for the pain from his dental devices. I wonder how that affected his thinking processes and behavior. But I get the impression that if that information were anywhere available, Chernow would have reported on it!

  3. It sounds like this was a mammoth book packed with information, and like one that I'd find very interesting. I do like history, especially when it's not dry, but for some reason, this book intimidates me. I am glad to hear that you liked it though, and will have to drop by the bookstore and give it a perusal to see if it's one for me too!

  4. I love finding well written nonfiction--this one sounds interesting!

  5. There are several books out on Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams. It's hard to know which of them to read or not so it's good to have a recommendation. I'm going to keep this one in mind and refer it to my son too, as he was looking for a good one on Washington.

  6. Sounds like a terrific biography. There's so much mythology around Washington that I look forward to getting to know the real man. I've been a fan of Jefferson for so long that it's tainted my interest in Washington, but no more!

    >Washington, an exceedingly hard worker, grew frustrated with his slaves because he couldn't get them to work as hard as he thought they should. The fact that there was no incentive for them to work harder during the long hours that they were working seemed to escape him.

    I think we will always struggle with the fact that our Founding Fathers were slave owners, and this difference in thought process underscores the gulf of understanding there really is across the years.

    >Fortunately for Washington, he was an even better politician than he was soldier.

    The myth of Washington definitely doesn't include this aspect of the man.

    Thanks for a great review...this goes on the Xmas list.

  7. Lisa, So glad you enjoyed this book - as you know I have learned so much about all things Washington since moving this summer.

    Just yesterday I ran 6 miles through Jockey Hallow, by standing soldier huts! I run where men died! Well.. I also live on land where they camped. Crazy!

    I might have to buy this book for my dad.

  8. This is one that I think would really appeal to my husband. You did a great job of reviewing this chunkster!!!

  9. My knowledge of Washington is zero so I'd like to read it. Thanks for this review.

  10. I read a biography of George Washington a few years ago (His Excellency by Joseph Ellis) and my goodness was it dry. This sound like it would be something much more engaging and informative! Don't you love when a book is so good that it can be passed around amongst family members? Glad you liked this one, Lisa.

  11. I'm not a book keeper either but I think this would be one that would have a permanent home on my shelves. Thanks for being a part of the tour - I'm happy to see how much you enjoyed this (very big) book. And I'm relieved that you didn't try to take notes all the way through! LOL

  12. I was intimidated when I saw this in the bookshop, but your review makes me think I can handle it (a little bit at a time!). Thanks, Lisa, for the prompting!