I picked it up specifically because of the Chernow connection. His Hamilton biography is one of my favorite books - as lifelong Hamilton devotee, I eagerly devoured it upon release, and even tracked down Ron Chernow for a signed copy when he swung through Kansas City on a book tour way back in 2004. In contrast, I've never been particularly curious about George Washington, who had seemed like the most boring of the founding fathers. I'm not really interested in military history, and he isn't as personally colorful as Benjamin Franklin, or as intellectually exciting as Alexander Hamilton. I'm sure this is also at least partially due to my hipster-ish reaction against popularity: if he's the most famous founder, I'm less likely to seek him out.
But, of course, Washington's life is still familiar to me. I'm pretty sure that I've never read a straight biography of him before, even in my childhood, but through sheer osmosis and history classes and everything I've absorbed a ton of fragments about the man. One of the most surprising aspects of this biography was, for the first time, having all those fragments assembled into a whole: I often found that, while I thought I knew things, they actually meant something different than I had assumed. And there were still a lot of elements of his life that I'd never known about before. Altogether, I ended up with a significantly elevated respect for and admiration of this guy, and have to semi-grudgingly admit that he had earned and deserved the immense acclaim he has received.
As one particular example of re-learning something: I'd been vaguely aware that he had earned early military fame for his service in the French and Indian War. I hadn't realized that he had basically single-handedly started the war (which became the Seven Years War in Europe). As in many of his military outings, he had made several questionable decisions and bungled operations, including choosing a poor site to defend ("Fort Necessity") and killing an ambassador carrying a diplomatic message. But despite his strategic and tactical failings, he earned the admiration and loyalty of those around him: he led by example, displayed great personal physical prowess, worked hard to improve his troops, supported his officers, and generally was a good leader. And the dude was only twenty-two years old! That seems to be a recurring theme of the founding generation: just how incredibly young these people were when they started racking up huge accomplishments. One of Chernow's main objectives in this book is to obliterate the stiff image of Washington we've inherited from his most famous portraits, and restore the man as most of his contemporaries knew him: one of the most vigorous, graceful, and physically imposing men of his generation.
This definitely isn't a hagiography. I was really glad to see that Chernow never allows Washington to escape the shadow of his role as a slaveowner. We learn about how he acquired his slaves, how he used them, his policies regarding them, how his opinions evolved over time. It isn't all shuffled off into a single chapter or endnotes, but a constant background presence. Even while Washington is away from Mount Vernon for a decade, leading the Continental Army, we're periodically reminded of his remote management of the estate, complete with instructions on how overseers should keep order and his obsession with pursuing runaways. I was also glad to see Chernow treating slaves as individual human beings and not as an anonymous mass of labor. We learn the names of many of the slaves, their personalities, their roles in the household, how George and Martha saw them. Slaves were often treated as invisible and not commented on, but when possible Chernow records their own words (often quoted by foreign visitors who were nonplussed at the institution).
George was relatively enlightened in contrast to the other Virginia planters of his era. He stopped buying slaves early on, refused to break up slave families, showed particular care and attention to slaves who had served him long; during the revolutionary war, his inner circle was dominated by abolitionists (John Laurens, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette), and he came to personally view slavery as abhorrent. And yet, he never had the courage to actually take action and end it in his own estate, let alone in the country as a whole. His letters show that he felt trapped: he wanted to free his slaves, but couldn't continue to operate his estate without them. Of course, he could have given them up, but that would have meant sacrificing his reputation and comfort as a plantation-owner. By modern standards, it's pretty unconscionable to consider keeping hundreds of human beings in bondage so a handful can live a comfortable life; he doesn't seem to have even considered the possibility of deliberately becoming poor to accomplish his supposed goal. Only after his death did he free his slaves, and even then he stipulated that they would remain in bondage until Martha had passed.
Before Chernow became a celebrated chronicler of founding fathers, he was best-known as a biographer of businessmen, including well-received books about J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and the Warburgs (none of which I have read). This background in finance has served him very well in his political biographies, particularly when describing the brilliance of Hamilton's financial plans and illuminating Washington's operations at Mount Vernon. Washington was a bit like a CEO: he oversaw far-flung operations across five farms through a hierarchy of overseers and laborers. He was extremely attentive, detail-oriented, requesting and monitoring a regular stream of supports, and issuing frequent advice and orders to advance his interests. As a physically vigorous man, he personally toured his holdings, and would lead by example, showing how to cut wood or thrash grain or other such tasks. And then he would spend hours reading reports, researching new agricultural methods, crafting plans for the coming years of operations.
Washington was a product of the Enlightenment and demonstrated a great interest in science and improvement. After several years of disappointing tobacco harvests, he came to understand how this crop depleted the soil, and restructured his farms to grow a variety of different plants. He took pleasure in architecting his own buildings, including the famed Mount Vernon mansion and a twelve-sided threshing barn, as well as innovative structures to take advantage of the Potomac fishery.
I've tended to think of his time at Vernon as a kind of intermission between the two wars he fought in, but Chernow shows how the abilities he honed during this time became invaluable in his later career. The skills in management and delegation and continual improvement were all incredibly useful when he gained responsibility for leading the entire army. This period also demonstrates one of Washington's best aspects: while he certainly made mistakes throughout his life, he very rarely made them twice. Unlike some other founders (Hamilton springs to mind) who repeatedly fell into the same traps, Washington would recognize when he had made a mistake, would feel deeply embarrassed, and then correct his future actions to ensure he wouldn't fall into it again. As a result, the course of his life becomes more admirable and successful over time. As a young man he could often seem ambitious, hotheaded, and careless; by the end, he had an enduring reputation as a humble, wise, deliberate man.
While reading this biography of the first American president, I couldn't help but make frequent comparisons to the last American president. In contrast to the president-elect, Washington's defining legacy was his sacrifice. He was one of the very wealthy men of Virginia, and willingly gave up the prime years of his life and his fortune to answer his country's call to serve. He refused to take a salary during the decade he served, and watched his personal fortune crumble. He never complained or sounded resentful: his devotion to the cause was so strong that (of course!) money seemed insignificant in comparison. He was also personally generous, providing for widows and orphans and veterans. While the nation heaped accolades on his head, he always seemed painfully embarrassed by the attention: not claiming glory for himself or talking about how great he was, he would always deflect such praise outward to his fellow citizens or upward towards Providence.
In light of current events, I was particularly struck by President Washington's address to a Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. He personally visited this congregation, along with Thomas Jefferson and George Clinton, and said this:
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance… May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.That's so great! To unpack that a bit:
- All citizens have the same rights, regardless of your background or origin.
- America isn't merely a country where religious minorities are "tolerated" by the majority. It's a country where every variety of faith is equally protected under the law.
- The government will act to defend the rights of minorities against bigots who seek to persecute them.
- America should be a country where everyone can live free of fear.
(As a side note, this issue and address is also a great summary of the beliefs of Federalists such as Washington, who saw a vigorous central government as a defender of individual liberty. In contrast, the Republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, much like the Tea Partiers of today, advocated for a weaker or absent central government, which would allow majorities to impose their will upon minorities.)
Washington was a cryptic person in a lot of ways, and his religious beliefs are high on that list. I've tended to assume that he was a deist like Franklin or Jefferson, and his public stance on faith seemed to reinforce that. He never took communion, he spoke in vague religious terms like "Providence" and very rarely referenced Christ directly. However, Chernow finds quite a few reports that complicate this picture. Several people, when they came upon Washington unexpectedly (such as delivering an urgent military message), found him reading his bible, or on his knees praying. He seems to have had a strong personal religious faith, which he scrupulously hid from public view. Why? This certainly seems like a civic asset during his late-life political career, as he visited and supported a variety of churches without seeming to favor the establishment of any one particular denomination. But his religious reticence was a lifelong characteristic, and seems more deeply ingrained in him. We'll never know the answer, but it seems likely that he was balancing his personal conviction with Enlightenment ideals, and dividing his life into private and public spheres.
His romantic life is also a minor enigma, and, oddly, perhaps even more important to the history of the United States than his religious beliefs. He seems to have been impotent, which helped America overcome its fear of introducing a new hereditary monarchy and allowed him to establish a strong executive branch of government. His relationship with Martha seems to have been very fond and mutually agreeable, but not passionate. That doesn't mean that George wasn't a passionate man, though. He had very intense emotional relationships with other women, notably Sally Fairfax and Elizabeth Powel; it's unknown if he ever consummated those liaisons, but he maintained close connections with them even in the company of their husbands, and would often draft Martha in as well. I was a little reminded of the Angelica/Eliza/Alexander relationship, where there seems to have been a clear physical attraction, and the inclusion of the spouse in the relationship simultaneously heightens the level of mutual emotional connection while reducing the likelihood that any actual hanky-panky took place.
As he did with Eliza in the Hamilton biography, Chernow is great at fully fleshing out the women in Washington's lives. People like Martha were very self-effacing and didn't attract much attention, but he finds many great quotes that show how other people perceived her. (Short summary: Everybody loved her, nobody thought she was pretty.) Washington was kind of girl-crazy throughout his life; even in his sixties, he would note with delight in his diary how many women he saw at a reception or ball. He also seems to have been more relaxed with them, generally being more talkative and pleasant in female company than in male. He was especially fond of many of his friends' and officers' wives, including Caty Greene. He was devoted to his own adopted female children, especially Nelly Custis, breaking with tradition by educating them and giving them considerable freedom in pursuing their own desires. Betsey Custis in particular comes across as a very vibrant, independent, clever young woman. Patsy Custis, in contrast, is sweet but leads a tragic life.
The whole Washington/Custis situation is a bit confusing, but Chernow does a good job at laying out the tangled family tree. Washington himself came from a step-marriage, and tracing all the relations can be difficult. He ended up responsible for a ton of people, almost none of whom shared his blood; the main exception, his mother, was one of the more miserable and negative relations in his life. It also considerably complicated his personal financial picture: when he married the widower Martha, she held the immense Custis fortune, but George had no right to it. That wealth ended up being more of a burden than a benefit, as he was responsible for managing it for the benefit of his step-children. It might have contributed to his drive for conspicuous consumption, which cast him into debt at an early age; once again, though, he learned from his mistakes, and late in life he repeatedly urged his wards to frugality and exertion, to little apparent result.
The main quality of Washington that Chernow first identified in his Hamilton biography, and develops more thoroughly here, is his fantastic judgment. If each founding father has their own superpower, Washington's was definitely his uncanny ability to make the best decision. He wasn't a great original thinker, like Jefferson or Hamilton, but he was terrific at soliciting a range of opinions, carefully considering each one, and then would inevitably pick the best option. During the presidency, this usually meant following Hamilton's lead, but he also recognized whenever Hamilton was pulling too far or in the wrong direction and would gently rein him back in.
On a related note, Washington was also a fantastic judge of character. Even before he developed his great judgment, he had tremendous skill at identifying talented people, finding the tasks they were best suited for, and supporting them in their roles. Part of the fun of reading about the revolutionary war is the collection of oddballs and misfits that Washington assembled into an unlikely force that defeated the British empire. Colorful characters like Baron von Steuben, excitable foreigners like Lafayette, an obese bookseller like Knox, a bastard immigrant like Hamilton, and many others could have languished in obscurity, but were elevated by Washington into the perfect parts for them to play. The most inspiring story is probably that of Nathanael Greene, who started off as a private in the militia and ended as the major general in charge of the southern theater of the war; in the last several years of fighting, Greene actually won the war while Washington looked on from afar. Along the way, though, Greene made huge errors, most notably the catastrophic loss of Fort Lee. Almost any other commander in chief would have sacked Greene after this, but Washington saw Greene's huge potential: he not only kept him on, but provided steady encouragement, rebuilding his shattered confidence and gradually reintroducing him to larger commands. Washington was incredibly loyal to those around him, never throwing them under the bus or shifting blame onto subordinates for his (many) failures. His steadfastness, of course, earned their loyalty in return, and built the solid core of the army and the unified nation.
Washington could recognize talent, and also recognized the lack thereof. He had a pretty good sense for which shortcomings were quirks that could be accommodated and which were fatal flaws that should be shunned. He kept his distance from characters like Charles Lee and Thomas Conway, and was eventually vindicated by their failures. The only major exception I can think of is Benedict Arnold, whose treason blindsided Washington; to be fair, though, nobody else saw that coming either.
The political world proved much more treacherous and unpredictable than the military world, and Washington faced more determined opposition and backstabbing from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison than he ever received from the Conway Cabal. Both of these figures appear even more villainous here than they did in the Hamilton biography. In Jefferson's case, I think that's partly because of a greater pre-existing friendship between the two men, which makes TJ's machinations all the more odious. They were both wealthy Virginian planters who shared not only revolutionary ideals but also an interest in science and agriculture and frequently corresponded on both mundane and philosophical topics. Also, Jefferson happens to have been Washington's main enemy at the time that the latter died; Hamilton certainly had at least as much opposition to Jefferson, but by the time of Hamilton's death Burr had eclipsed Jefferson as the primary villain in his story.
In the Hamilton biography, James Madison's arc was probably the saddest story to me, even more so than the death of Laurens, Philip, or Alexander. Madison and Hamilton had such an incredibly fruitful partnership, accomplishing such amazing things together and doing more than anyone else to create the United States. It's so tempting to imagine a world where they continued their collaboration, with Madison shaping the legislative branch as Hamilton guided the executive. Instead, Madison fell back under the sway of Jefferson's influence, and ended up repudiating the very ideals for which he and Hamilton had fought, joining the Republicans in launching horrific slander against the still-fragile nation.
Madison comes across less sympathetically in the Washington biography. I think that's because we see so much more of his backstabbing. He and Hamilton had a very clean break: they were great friends until Hamilton presented his debt plan to Congress, then Madison rejected him and they were acknowledged political foes. In contrast, Washington continued to solicit advice from Madison throughout much of his presidency, and collaborated with him on a variety of issues, unaware that Madison was funneling private conversations to the Republican propaganda machine and organizing widespread opposition to the very issues Washington was soliciting help on.
That said, though, Madison is also the topic of what's probably my favorite anecdote in this entire book. Washington, never a talented public speaker, asked for Madison to write his inaugural address, so Madison ghostwrote it for him. Washington provided it to Congress in advance so they would be prepared for what he had to say. Unaware of the actual author, they then tapped Madison to draft the official congressional response to his own speech. And then, without knowing who had written the response, Washington asked Madison to write his reply. So, in this elaborate ceremony between the major branches of government, one dude was basically just talking to himself. I think that's hilarious.
One of my favorite aspects about this period of history, which continues to blow my mind, was how these people were creating a country and a government from scratch. There were literally zero employees when they started, no departments, no manuals, no customs or traditions, or even other democracies to model themselves after. The Constitution was a great document, but it was deliberately vague about how a lot of stuff was supposed to work. So much of what we now think of as inherent aspects of our government were semi-accidentally determined during those first couple of years as Washington and others made decisions. We have rules against prior restraint because the first Supreme Court justice didn't want to advise Washington on the legality of an action he wanted to take. The executive branch takes the lead in diplomacy and trade negotiations because Washington was peeved at the Senate for refusing to immediately vote on his appointments. The emergency powers of the executive branch were defined because there was an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadephia. And so on.
It was all so fragile. It's miraculous that the country survived, let alone thrived and became one of the most powerful in the world. We've had a pretty good 228 years... shame to see it come to an end, but the fact it's lasted this long is remarkable, and is a huge testament to the incredible intelligence, diligence, and sacrifice of the founding generation.