Here comes the General...
Washington: A Life By Ron Chernow
Biography of a man that slept everywhere
On Fridays I am going be doing what I am calling "Friday Favorite Flashback" where I post about a favorite book I've read in the past. For this first installment, and in celebration of Washington's birthday, I'm posting a review of Ron Chernow's biography of the first President.
Washington’s place in American history is unparalleled; no other President in our history looms as large, so Chernow has an unenviable task of trying to write a biography of a man so mythical that when people say his name all we can image is a dollar bill. Chernow succeeds in bringing a fresh perspective to the first president; he is a first rate historian, his research is meticulous and the analysis and insight is excellent with the added bonus of being quite readable. I was able to get through the 904 pages with relative speed (thank God the last 100 pages were notes). Chernow clearly admires Washington but he manages to keep the biography from sliding into hagiography.
Chernow shows us an evolving Washington, one that matures and sheds much of his early elitism. Washington’s desire to become a British officer, and the condescending way that the British treated its American subjects, helped to propel him to join the rebellion against the mother country. But he retained much of Britain’s class system with its inherent elitism, reinforced in the southern colonies, where people were land rich but cash poor. As the war raged on and he came into contact with northern militias, he began to seek a less stratified society. And after returning to his beloved Mount Vernon after the war, his issues with slavery also expanded but continually perplexed him, it was a peculiar institution to be sure. The retired Commander of the Continental Army had mixed feelings about fighting for freedom from England while enslaving an entire population. At the end of his life, Washington freed his slaves but that was only a small number at Mount Vernon. He had no recourse to free the slaves owned by Martha Washington or her grandchildren. Chernow’s discussion of Washington and slavery is one of the more enlightening aspects of the book. Washington’s struggle with the evil institution that would continue to plague the nation and eventually lead to civil war, is complicated by his dependence on it; Chernow’s analysis of a man, who agonized about the problem but could not bring himself to lose the financial benefits of enslaved labor during his lifetime, is very well done. These are the moments we see the human Washington instead of the myth.
After reading the biography, I was most struck by how much Washington’s eventual abhorrence of slavery was a missed opportunity. We owe much to Washington: defining the role of the executive and his cabinet, establishing the judiciary, the entire city of Washington D.C. But if he had chosen to fight with the abolitionists, like Benjamin Franklin, it might have saved the country, and thousands of men and women, heartache and suffering. It’s impossible to rewrite history and I hate the second guessing of past actions, but in this instance, Washington might have been one of the few men, a slave holder and a Virginian, who could have started the end of slavery, eighty years before the Civil War, without tearing the nation apart. Of course, he might have tried and the young country might not have made it; it is impossible to know.
I have do have to call Mr. Chernow out on one line. We get it that George and Mary Washington did not have the warmest of mother/son relationships, but this line might be one of the silliest I have read: “Although Mary Ball Washington spent the last seventeen years of her life in the Charles Street house and never paid a penny in rent...” Washington: A Life (Kindle Locations 3455-3457). Sometimes you have to let your mama live rent-free.