Monday, October 25, 2010

Washington: A Life

I would guess that most Americans do not even realize how little they know about George Washington.  Oh, sure, we all know that silly cherry tree story (an event that never happened) proving that Washington “could not tell a lie.”  We know that he crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776 during the Revolutionary War because we are familiar with the (historically inaccurate) Emanuel Leutze painting from 1851 portraying that courageous decision.  We know about Washington’s wooden teeth, or we think we do since that is another slightly bent story about our first president (the real story of Washington’s dental problems are even more fascinating than the myth about his wooden teeth).
We know, too, that General Washington led the American rebels against the British army and that he was America’s first president, a man who very reluctantly agreed to a second term.  Some of us even know that he was involved in the French and Indian War as a very young man.  But that is about the limit, if not beyond the limit, for most casual observers of American history.  
But how does a man become George Washington?  What stroke of luck placed him in the right place at precisely the time his young country needed someone exactly like him?  Would America be the country it is today if George Washington had not been there to lead the fight for its liberty and oversee its earliest days of independence? Those who wonder about such things need only pick up Ron Chernow’s new Washington biography, Washington: A Life, to find all the answers.
Put simply, Chernow’s 900-page biography is as comprehensive as it is remarkably easy to read. Unlike so many history books and biographies that I have slogged through in the past, the pages and chapters fly by in this one.  Mr. Chernow plucks George Washington from the mythical pages of history and turns him into a human being, a man with as many faults as qualities, a man who transformed himself into one of the most influential ever born.  
Chernow’s biography stresses just how private a man George Washington was despite the fact that he took great pains to document the details of his life.  He was not a man given to public display of his emotions, preferring to lead with a quiet dignity and calm that never failed to impress those around him.  He had a special charisma that allowed him to keep his army together under the harshest of conditions, even when it seemed the Revolutionary War might end with the American army simply walking away from the battlefield for good.  He used that same charisma in his two presidential terms and had a strong hand in shaping how the United States government functions today.
Despite the light shown in the Leutze painting,
the crossing was made in the dark of night
But George Washington is more than a mythical hero.  That he shared the faults of his time and his class cannot be argued; that he overcame them, makes him more the hero.  Chernow puts the flaws into the context of Washington’s times but that does little to lessen their impact on Washington’s image.  The reader will be particularly struck by Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery.  On the one hand, he had misgivings about one human being having the right to own another, and he always tried to treat his slaves with dignity and respect, perhaps even with affection in some few cases.  On the other hand, he demanded that his slaves work hard on a daily basis, no matter their age or the weather conditions.  Washington’s income, something he was stressed about during the war and his presidency, depended on slave labor and he did not free his slaves until his wife's death.  (He even purchased teeth from slaves to be used in replacement dentures for the teeth he had lost - no wood in George’s mouth).
Washington was a land grabber as a young man, having recognized that the easiest source of wealth (other than marrying it, which he also managed) in this new country was land.  He involved himself in a scheme to buy up the land rights, at greatly reduced prices, of his fellow French and Indian War veterans before those men could exercise them.  Much of that same Western acreage would be disposed of by a desperate Washington in his later years when his service to his country deprived him of the time to properly manage his several Virginia farms.
Chernow tells the complete story.  Washington’s flaws are offset by the greatness of his vision, and the reader cannot help but come away from the book with the conviction that things would have been greatly different for America if there had never been a Virginian by the name of George Washington.  Without Washington, the Revolutionary War might not have been won, and even if it had been, the government we know today would probably be a very different one without having had his guiding hand at critical early moments in its history.
Washington: A Life tells a fascinating story in easily read prose; readers should not be put off by its length.  The best praise I can give a book of this type is that it makes me want to read more about the period and some of the other men involved.  That is certainly the case with Washington: A Life.
Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

This review is part of Ron Chernow's TLC Book Tour for Washington: A Life.

Other reviews, remarks and opinions concerning the book can be found at:

Tuesday, October 5th: Rhapsody In Books
Wednesday, October 6th: Til We Read Again
Thursday, October 7th: Wordsmithonia
Monday, October 11th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, October 12th: American Creation
Wednesday, October 13th: A Reader’s Respite
Monday, October 18th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, October 19th: Books and Things
Wednesday, October 20th: Life Is A Patchwork Quilt
Tuesday, October 26th: American Revolution & Founding Era
Wednesday, October 27th: Rundpinne
Thursday, October 28th: Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub


  1. I am not usually interested in non-fiction but after reading this review I found myself irresistibly drawn to check it out. I went to my local library's website and checked to see if it had been produced in audiobook format and was pleased to find that it has. I was somewhat daunted at finding it to be 33 CDs long but am determined to see it through! I am looking forward to getting it but there are several people ahead of me in line so it will be a while. Thank you for your inspiring review, I'm excited to review it myself! :)

  2. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Andy. Wow...33 CDs. That's quite a time commitment - must be something close to 40 hours of listening time.

  3. 42 hours to be exact! :) I can average around 5 discs a day while I work so it will only take about a week and a half. I have been finding that I enjoy historical fiction so why not make the leap to historical non-fiction? Besides, I'll be learning something in the bargain! :)

  4. That's a bunch of hours. Honestly, I don't have much look with non-fiction books on CD because I get overwhelmed by all the facts I want to remember. On audio, they go by too fast for me to keep up. But that's just me...

  5. I am a huge fan of historical books but there's always the chance that they will be incredibly slow and boring to read. I'm so glad that Chernow didn't fall prey to that in this book! It sounds like an excellent read and, being the huge audiobook fan that I am, I'll probably go that route with it. (42 hours is about average for some of the epic fantasy novels I listen to)

    Thanks for being a part of this book tour - I'm so glad the book was a good fit for you!

  6. Definitely not a problem with this one, Heather. Chernow is easy to read and I think I retained much more from this one than I have from a book of this type in a long time. I enjoyed being part of the tour and getting the chance to read this one slowly enough for it to sink in. Thanks.

  7. I'm becoming more and more drawn to this book!

  8. For good reason, Susan. It's a long one but I'm pleased that I didn't miss it.