George Washington was the indispensable Founding Father. He was unanimously chosen four straight times to lead: as commander in chief of the Continental Army; as president of the Constitutional Convention; and for two consecutive terms as president of the United States. Even in his retirement, the Senate unanimously confirmed him as head of the new Army. All of this was accomplished as he set precedents and dealt with opposition from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others. Now the brilliant biographer Ron Chernow, author of the National Book Award-winning The House of Morgan, demonstrates in his magnificently written, richly detailed and always compelling Washington: A Life just how and why his subject attained such an exalted status. Chernow draws on the 60 volumes of Washington’s letters and diaries as well as letters written to him, state papers from the period and the latest Washington scholarship. We now know more about him than his family, friends and other contemporaries did.
From an early age, Washington was ambitious. Although he was not born into a family of the upper gentry and did not attend college, he was not exactly a self-made man. Conscientious and self-educated in many ways, it was the untimely deaths of his father and half-brother and his marriage to Martha Custis that thrust him into the top tier of Virginia’s plantation society. Chernow’s narrative traces his evolution from a brave soldier on the frontier with a consuming desire for fame, money and status to a tough-minded businessman and a hard-driving slave owner, and then into a soldier and statesman with a mastery of political skills.
Chernow’s nuanced portrait shows that Washington generally was a realist and problem solver as well as a shrewd and subtle reader of other people. He certainly made errors of judgment, particularly during the war, and without extraordinary help from France, American history might have turned out differently. But Washington had a commitment to a greater vision than many others of what the United States could become.
No other part of Washington’s life concerned him so much as being an owner of many slaves. Chernow devotes much space to his long ambivalence between abolitionism and his economic well-being based on slavery. Despite the Washingtons’ strong personal positive feelings about individual slaves, any doubts Washington had about slavery were expressed only in private letters, never publicly. He was reluctant to break up slaves’ families, yet he did not feel the same way when it came to selling slaves. Of course, by freeing his slaves in his will, Washington took a step all other slave-owning Founders failed to take.
This magisterial volume covers the father of our country in all aspects, from his difficult relationship with his mother to his inability to live frugally, his obsession with Mount Vernon, his exemplary leadership in war and peace, and much more. Chernow’s latest accomplishment is historical biography at its best.
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
In this cradle-to-grave biography of the Founding Father, notable biographer Chernow (Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller) thoroughly recounts how Washington rose to prominence in the French and Indian War, parlayed that early heroism into international fame as general of the Continental army during the American Revolution, and, as America's first President, unified a young nation and shaped its government--and he offers deeper explorations of, for example, Washington's cold relationship with his mother, his heavy reliance on younger devotees such as Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, and his contradictory actions regarding slavery. Chernow's Washington is a reluctant celebrity who perpetually tries to retire from national service but refuses to turn his back on an embryonic republican country struggling with its newfound freedom. The narrative relies heavily on Washington's papers, but Chernow also liberally cites other primary sources and previous biographies. While objective for the most part, he occasionally offers well-grounded opinions on Washington's character and political and military actions. VERDICT This broadly and deeply researched work is a major addition to Washington scholarship--every era should have its new study of him--and it should appeal to informed lay readers and undergraduates interested in stepping beyond the typical textbook treatment.--Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia[Page 90]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
In his introduction, veteran biographer Chernow is clear about his goals. Using the recent "explosion of research," he wants to render George Washington "real" and "credible," to replace "frosty respect" with "visceral appreciation." In many respects, Chernow succeeds. He gives us a Washington who starts with limited education and means and, through a remarkable combination of timely deaths, an incredible capacity for hard work, a shrewd marriage, astonishing physical hardiness and courage, a propensity for land speculation, and a gift for finding influential patrons, transforms himself into a soldier, well-to-do planter, local official, and eventually the only real choice to command the Continental army, preside over the Constitutional Convention, and serve as the first president. Chernow makes familiar scenes fresh (like the crossing of the Delaware) and expertly brings the provisional revolutionary and early Republican eras to life. Along the way, however, he mistakes "visceral" for ardent; while he never hides Washington's less than saintly moments or shirks the vexed question of slavery, he often seems to ignore the data he's collected. Examples of shady dealing are quickly followed by tales of Washington's unimpeachable ethics or impeccable political savvy. At times it feels as if Chernow, for all his careful research and talent for synthesis, is in the grip of a full-scale crush. The result is a good book that would have been great if better edited, and if Chernow had trusted that Washington's many merits, even when accompanied by his faults, would speak for themselves. (Oct.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC