Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow – Or How Our First President Was A Real Person

George Washington - 1772 - Painted by Charles Wilson Peale

A recent New York Times blog post highlights the struggle between the North and South to claim George Washington as their leader in the years before the Civil War. This antebellum PR battle centered around Washington as a slave owner. Southern advocates of slavery latched onto this fact as one facet of their justification to keep slavery alive. Northerners countered that he had spoken out against slavery and his will called for releasing his slaves upon the death of his wife Martha.

Washington’s connection to slavery even led some abolitionists in Boston to downplay his birthday as holiday in the pre-Civil War years. Instead, they gave more prominence to Crispus Attucks Day, March 5. Attucks, a black Bostonian, is considered the first death of the Revolutionary War.

It is this contradiction, among others, that consistently surface in Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life.” Chernow, who has authored biographies of American heavyweights like John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton, ably chronicles Washington’s 67 years, first as a subject of the British Crown, then a rebel to the only country he knew, and finally as the Father of America.

Many themes, including Washington’s financial struggles, perceived intellectual shortcoming due to a lack of serious education, and his ability to mask his deep reserve of emotions, consistently appear in the 817 page one-volume biography. The most important of these recurring themes is Washington’s relationship with slavery.

Washington with Martha and Grandchildren Nelly and Jackie and possibly Billy Lee, GW's personal slave.

For a Virginian plantation owner in the 18th century, his views on the issue were relatively advanced. He did not believe in splitting up slave families, he demanded the overseers of his plantation treat sick slaves with care, and his will called for the slaves he owned to be freed when Martha Washington died. This did little for many of slaves at Mount Vernon who were dower slaves that were considered his wife’s property and would be passed on to her grandchildren.

Despite all this, there are many passages in Chernow’s book where Washington’s writings or actions make you flinch. He believed his slaves to be lazy and thought all of them, even the most elderly should be put to work. No matter the weather – the bleakest days of winter or the sweltering hours of summers – were suitable weather for them to be in the field even if he kept himself inside.

In the end, Washington realized and hoped that slavery would go away. Despite being the only Founding Father who owned slaves to free them after his death, he didn’t push for abolition during his life. He worried about tearing the fledgling country apart. He could never put together the contradiction in a group of colonies rebelling for freedom while enslaving a group of people based on the color of their skin.

Washington & Army Crossing the Delaware

This contradiction, and Washington’s many personal struggles, get lost in the mythology of that American era. The Founding Fathers were flawed people. They were very much like us in their pecadilloes, personalities, egos, and interactions. When history’s actors – to borrow a theater metaphor that Washington would appreciate – are two-dimensional, we lose perspective on where we came from. If some of the critical moments in this nation’s history, especially in those early years, had they gone differently, it would have created a very different present day. Books like Chernow’s do these figures justice and give American history the perspective it requires. With some states whitewashing their history education curriculums, it is now more important than ever to tell our story truthfully and fully.

My reading routine typically consists of reading  during my commute on the bus and subway during rush hour. In the morning, after getting to the office, I check my e-mail and briefly visit talkingpointsmemo to see the morning’s headlines. Typically the newest diatribe from Michelle Bachmann or Newt Gingrich is highlighted.  I’d find their rants lacking in comparison to the dedicated vitriol exerted in the early days of America. Anti-Federalists, led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, while Jefferson while Washington’s Secretary of State, slammed Federalists for wishing to install a monarchy.  The Federalists tarred Jefferson, Madison, and their supporters for being in cahoots with the Jacobin revolutionaries in France. One publication, published by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, went as far to claim that Washington did nothing to help the cause of independence.

While this claim was ludicrous at best, Washington’s military skill does come into question during the Revolutionary War. While he is remembered for the crossing the Delaware and the victory at Yorktown, Washington’s record in battle was less than stellar. Often, his plans were too complex and got bogged down in execution. He showed valor in battle, but his strategy was far too focused on recapturing New York from the British. It was the French who saw the value of attacking the British near the Chesapeake and the tide of war turned on US victories in the south.

This Never Happened - Washington Prayed Privately

Washington’s great success during the Revolutionary War came in keeping the army together. A rag tag militia compromised of farmers whose contracts were up on a regular basis. Rarely paid, barely clothed, perpetually underfed. Washington managed this collection of men in such a way that it kept the embers of freedom alive long enough to overcome loyalist support in the colonies, allow US representatives time to persuade European courts to join the cause, and to defeat the British. That is Washington’s great military accomplishment.

On the personal side of the ledger, death hung over Washington and his wife throughout their lives. Washington’s relatives, his mother and daughter aside, all died at a young age. All of Martha’s children from her first marriage predeceased her and many of her cousins and other relatives passed away before her.

George and Martha’s marriage was one of an intense friendship. From the letters left behind, a burning romance was not theirs. Washington did, at one time, love deeply, but it was not only a married woman, but the wife of his best friend. There is no solid evidence he ever did more than flirt and admit his feelings to Sally Fairfax, the target of his admiration.

George Washington began his career as a solider in the King George’s army. He closed his public life as the first president of the United States. To almost every generation of American, Washington is portrayed as this iconic figure who lived his life was a demi-god. Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” provides readers a chance see George Washington as he was, blemishes and all, and leaves most of the judgment to us. And that is a good thing.

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