Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

Five stars (of five)

After reading a fictional series set throughout the U.S. War of Independence, I became highly curious about some of its key actors. The first such individual is George Washington, known as the general who led the troops to victory and became the Republic’s first president. However, as Ron Chernow seeks to illustrate in his tome, little is actually known about Washington beyond his general persona. Chernow posits that many short and superficial biographies have been written, which offer only a shallow glimpse into the man and his life. Other pieces span volumes and are likely too dense or detailed to be of much use to the general public. For Americans and history buffs alike, this single-volume work offers a comprehensive look at Washington as it weaves along a narrative from cradle to grave. The tome highlights numerous aspects of Washington’s life, as Chernow presents a man in six periods of his life, generally told in a chronology easy to digest. As Chernow has undertaken my usual style of finding themes in the individual on discussion, I will analyse this book from a different angle; whether it provides key pillars to a strong biography. A truly powerful biography ought to encompass strong views of the individual throughout their life, give flowing connection through historical happenings, and offer a collection of anecdotes little known to the reader for synthesis. Chernow accomplishes this on many levels and makes the story one of both education and pure entertainment. George Washington is no simple man, which Chernow accentuates effectively while presenting his findings from years of research. A piece not only deserving of attention for its detail, but its presentation that permits the general public to digest with ease.

Chernow does a fabulous job in illustrating George Washington as a person, from cradle to grave. As mentioned above, the tome is divided into six areas of Washington’s life, with thorough discussion at each point, which offers the reader a foundation on which to build the greater story. While little is known about Washington’s youth, Chernow sifts through documents to create a fluid narrative and presents it to the reader, alongside some key aspects to his family life, particularly the relationship held with Mary Ball Washington, his ornery mother. From there, the reader learns much about Washington’s service to the Crown in the French and Indian Wars, as well as early public service in the House of Burgesses and the rebellious side, as Britain began abusing its colonial residents. Chernow takes much pleasure in painting a picture of Washington outside of his titled roles, including the struggles with slavery as a landowner and the perils of the heart related to loves lost and his eventual marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. From the outset, Washington did not imagine himself a leader or political figure, though he wrestled the reins of power away from others and led the Continental Army into battle, as well as pushing the colonial political body through tough measures once the War of Independence had been completed. The road to the presidency was also one Washington did not expect to travel, going so far as to bow out of public life, only to be coaxed back to the forefront. He served to shape the nation, then led it along its newly crafted rulebook (the Constitution) for two terms. Thereafter, there was little left for him but final retirement at Mount Vernon. Chernow creates major arcs in the tome and keeps the reader in the fray as these transformations took place, highlighting the complexity and varied nature of George Washington.

While Washington the man stands firmly supported in the text, it is the connecting pieces, which act as historical ribbons, that keep the narrative moving effectively. Chernow does not parachute the reader into six areas of Washington’s life, but offers a hands-on approach to the entire history that was Washington. The length of the tome speaks to the detail in which Chernow invests in the story, offering powerful linkages and curious tales. Detailed discussions surrounding Washington’s early years in the Virginia backcountry, exploring the Indian lands, serve as a wonderful backdrop when it comes to the wars that Britain waged on the first inhabitants of America. Additionally, countless pages of backstory on the rise to rebellion and early military skirmishes help provide the reader with an omnipresent view of life on the battlefield. Washington struggled as well as conquered, something that cannot be downplayed. Even with the War complete, building the independent country took hard work and decisive action, all of which is accounted for within the biography. One cannot forget the two terms that Washington served as president, nor the daily struggles he had as he forged into unknown areas and sought to serve effectively. Chernow uses these, and many other historical events to weave together a narrative that leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind that the author did his due diligence.

No biography can truly hold its weight if it does not shine a light on some of the lesser-known events in an individual’s life. Chernow uses his research to present these sorts of facts throughout the tome. Numerous discussions arose surrounding Washington and his dental issues. While many might be aware of the dentures he wore (actually hippopotamus or walrus ivory and NOT wood), that he sought to have the extracted teeth of others (slaves, mostly) embedded in his gums as a first effort should provide early scintillating news that the reader will take away from the tome. Also, the struggles with statue and bust creation proved highly amusing and time consuming to Washington and those around him. Even the degree of detail into which Washington sought to create the ideal constitution cannot be lost. While Washington had many public feats about which history books overflow, smaller nuggets also prove highly entertaining for the reader and pace the narrative to keep details from dragging down the flow.

Chernow addresses a number of significant themes in the tome that cannot go unmentioned. While slavery and slave owning were common practice in the 18th century, Washington struggled with this, at times. Nowhere near a great emancipator, Washington saw such labour as essential as he cultivated crops and sought to keep his household afloat. He did, however, struggle with how to move forward, within his own lands as well as on a larger scale, but never firms up a policy, for which Lincoln paid a price decades later. Another of the key themes is, predictably, the creation of the constitutional document and the Bill of Rights. The stories surrounding these two documents are highly captivating, at least for a political scientist like myself, and should prove highly intriguing to the reader. As if sitting in the rooms, Chernow allows the reader to see some of the Founding Fathers present their ideas and thoughts related to the creation of the Republic, while tossing aside some of the parliamentary or British precedents so familiar to colonial statehouses. Included therein is the debate around federalism, state rights, as well as the split between the executive and legislative branches of government. Such foundation material comes off the page and allows the reader to understand in a way no generic textbook can offer. Pure historical and biographical gold on pages throughout this piece.

George Washington was a complicated man, so varied and unique that one book could not hope to shepherd it together. Chernow does a masterful job of bringing sources together, first hand accounts of happenings, and justifies much of what he has written with solid arguments. Was Washington the greatest man ever to walk the hallowed roads surrounding the Potomac? Likely not, but Chernow makes an effective argument that his simple life and passion to shed the chains of colonial oppression are key factors in how those United States of America came to fruition.

Kudos do not seem enough to offer you, Mr. Chernow. Your masterful storytelling has left me wanting more and places you alongside Robert A. Caro and David McCullough.