Ron Chernow has written biographies of historical figures such as Hamilton, Grant, and now George Washington, in Washington: A Life. Of course there are many biographies of these men, but his biographies are particularly valuable because Chernow has access to such a complete library of Washington papers and letters. Chernow has a talent for making material that could be dense and pedantic interesting and engrossing. He does not keep himself out of his writing. Whatever he concludes about these great men as he studies their documents informs his opinion of who they are and he shares that view with readers. Lucky is the age that has a chief biographer like Ron Chernow, although, of course, he has his critics.
In these days when we are so immersed in the roots of our nation, and whether we should try to be originalists and channel what the founders meant when they wrote our Constitution, in particular, and the Federalist papers which followed, or whether we should deal with the Constitution as we have lived with it and changed it, it seems appropriate to go back and study the roots of our nation. Although this book tells the story of our beginnings it does not necessarily help with our twenty-first century dilemmas regarding the Constitution. We do learn that political parties were not a part of our founders republic but they developed almost as soon as the government first convened under George Washington’s guidance as our first President.
The George Washington that Chernow presents us with is both heroic and human, with all his own flaws, often overshadowed by his assets. He paints a picture of a man with passions that he keep firmly under control. Washington is ambitious but not aggressively so, he is vain and often oversteps his finances to keep up his style. He is a Southerner who keeps slaves although he also professes to hate the practice. He loves owning property and he has a number of farms, or plantations. He has 200 slaves of his own and some as a dower from his wife, Martha. He could downsize his farming operations, which suffer terrible loses from his long absences and from bad soil and bad weather, but he could never imagine changing the lifestyle that he feels offers him privilege and social standing. He’s not comfortable with owning slaves but he cannot see a way to maintain a life without them. He does free them in his will but he cannot free the slaves that belong to Martha. Abolition was already an issue and Washington only scraped by without much pushback because he lead the Revolutionary War and we won it. He became a hero, recognized and celebrated everywhere, which is apparently not as much fun as it sounds. After the war people stopped in at Mount Vernon all the time and he extended hospitality and often feed and provided beds for favored guests. Washington worried constantly about money but he lived like a wealthy man.
Washington lost a lot of income during the eight years of the war. He started the war with rough men who were ragged troops. But he came to feel for his men and they for him. He knew that they suffered without proper uniforms or even proper clothing for the weather, without enough food, in winter shelters they had to build themselves and he often suffered with them, although not to the same extent. The colonies never sent enough money to support the soldiers and they had high expectations of the outcomes. These soldiers eventually became a regimented army. There were both black and white soldiers. Washington took no pay as Commander of the Revolutionary Army. He had to appoint relatives to oversee his farms and he always longed to go home but he felt so strongly about the need to be a free country that he persevered although often criticized as lacking in military strategy. Considering the trials of his army it is a wonder that America happened at all.
After Washington was persuaded to be the first President things were at first productive but soon the split between North and South became apparent. The Northerners were known as the Federalists, led by Hamilton, and the Southerners as the Republicans, led by John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Although Washington was from the South, the programs designed by Hamilton for financing the new nation made sense to Washington even as they alienated the Republicans. The Republicans did not want strong central government because they were frightened that it would become a monarchy. Washington did want strong central government because he worried about fights between the colonies/states. Republicans did not like the idea of a central bank, but Washington feared that the new nation would always be in arrears without it. This did not just amount to squabbles in the legislature. There arose a press that was vehemently opposed to Washington. He served a second term when implored to do so, but it was a rough one.
It will be hard to leave the Father of our Nation and move on as I have spent so much time with him. Usually after I read such a long book I like to choose a few lighter books, some amuse bouche. What will serve as a chaser to Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life I have not yet decided, but here I have only scratched the surface of the Washington depicted in Chernow’s book. Washington did not help much with the writing of the Constitution but he had clear ideas about how he felt it should be implemented. How different our nation might be now if Thomas Jefferson had been our first president we will never know. Washington set up the practical, everyday working bones of our government with his first Congress and Cabinet and that got the government off to a sound beginning.