My thoughts on Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington
According to Chernow’s writing, Washington was meticulous in personal and professional matters, politically gifted, militarily less so, a talented synthesizer and manager, incredibly aware of his position in history, and deeply concerned about his image among contemporaries and posterity. He was a slave owner to the end.
Chernow’s biography covers Washington’s entire life, from his birth in 1732 to his death in 1799. Chernow heavily leans on written correspondence between Washington and others, making real the voice of a mythical figure and humanizing the impossibly stoic figure we learn about in high school history books. Between Washington’s writing and records, letters about Washington from his peers, and the rest of Chernow’s research, I got a nuanced and (seemingly) complete picture of our first president.
Washington was not born poor, but he wasn’t born into the Virginian elite either, and he was very aware of it. A constant thread in his life was “keeping up with the Joneses” and he nearly constantly lived beyond his means, despite the property and slaves he accumulated over his life through inheritance and marriage. This constant desire to fit in with the upper crust was also reflected in his attention to appearance; he always wanted the latest fashion from Europe, often wrote as though future generations might read his writing, and showed strong bias in favor of people of “good upbringing” and education (especially since he did not have a “good” education). In addition to all this, he was quite concerned with his appearance in general, as many of us are (which was one of the very humanizing aspects to learn about). He had trouble with his teeth and was very self conscious about it, regularly wording his letters to dentists in discreet, coded language.
In his youth, Washington was fiery and ambitious and made little effort to hide it. He managed to gain favor with important members of Virginia’s society, though, and gradually learned how to navigate political situations. He went from straight up whining about not getting what he wanted to cleverly holding his tongue and using a few choice words when the time was right. He somehow mastered the art of getting other people to say “Washington should do” or “Washington should be” while coming of as if he didn’t even want whatever role it was he was being nominated for (though in some cases, it legitimately seemed as though he didn’t want the responsibility). He certainly had a strong, if delicate, hand in guiding his own fate to first become the General of the Continental Army and then the first President (elected unanimously, at that).
His military acumen did not evolve alongside his political genius. He confidently made numerous blunders in skirmishes with Native Americans, somehow surviving the encounters with real plot-armor, and somehow made his survival cause for military recognition (despite the huge mistakes and losses). When he stated his lack of ability when taking the position of leading the Continental Army, he wasn’t wrong. It is easy to point out his Revolutionary War mistakes sitting here in 2020, but as compared to other military leaders, he did not excel relative to the field. He certainly deserves credit for simply keeping the Continental Army together, especially through the harrowing winters (which is arguably another demonstration of his political and leadership ability).
As a leader, he (usually) excelled in picking talented individuals to help him. Alexander Hamilton is an excellent example. Washington’s preference for those of “good” upbringing watered down the caliber of his selection with some rich but ultimately unremarkable folks, but for the most part he surrounded himself with brilliance. His aides-de-camp during the war were all able-minded men, and his cabinet during his first term included the likes of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Knox. His ability to control such intellects and egos and often channel them into something productive is remarkable. Though not known for coming up with ideas himself, he regularly acquired the opinions of his brilliant friends and combined them into something spectacular. Though he couldn’t write something like The Federalist Papers, he could direct the authors, understand their thoughts, and deliver them in powerful oration.
On the personal side of things, Washington’s sense of honor and his meticulous nature were remarkable, bordering on hilarious. In the midst of war, he would pen letters back to Mount Vernon detailing specific changes he wanted made to the main house or asking about minute details of weather and crop yields. He kept detailed records of, well, everything he could; his own letters, his finances, his farming; he even timed tasks to know how long things “should” take in the future (often for the work of his slaves, sadly). With regards to “honor”, when Benedict Arnold committed his betrayal, Arnold asked that Washington send along the clothes and items Arnold left behind. Washington obliged, which I just find ridiculously funny.
Washington’s relationships were interesting. He seemed to have a tense relationship with his mother, fitting the role of a begrudgingly duty-bound son. His relationship with Martha seemed an extremely healthy and close friendship (and an economic boost to George), though void of any romantic passion. Washington exhibited plenty of interest in other women earlier, most notably towards Sally Fairfax, and was known to behave differently in the company of women later on in his life. He enjoyed their company greatly and seems to have been quite the flirt, though there is no evidence of any affairs in the book. His other friendships came and went, though he had a soft spot for the Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton, treating them as the sons he never had.
It makes sense that Washington is remembered as a one-dimensional hero. He went to great lengths to portray himself in a particular way, and the time in which he existed was rich with hero-worship and treating leaders as above the common man (people referred to him as “Your Excellency”). I’m glad to have learned of the reluctant, emotional, self conscious, detail-oriented man behind the myth. I would hold him in immensely higher regard if he had done anything about the sin of slavery, but sadly all he did was express in writing some occasional misgivings about the system. Indeed, he often wrote about it in a coldly business-like manner and had trouble understanding why slaves would run away. His position in history, as he well knew, is enormous. But our first President was still just a man.