Review: Chernow’s Biography of Washington
Ron Chernow’s The House of Morgan has sat unread on my bookshelf for more than a decade. But when I learned he had written a biography of George Washington, I purchased and read it immediately. At more than 800 pages, it took a while to finish, but Chernow does an admirable job of bringing this America giant to life.
Despite his voluminous correspondence, and innumerable biographies written about him, George Washington remains a mythic figure in American history. Separating legend and fiction from truth and accuracy has eluded writers for centuries. Nearly every treatment of him, at least ones I have read, hold him at arm’s length, or raise him to heights where it becomes impossible to learn about the man.
Chernow gives details of Washington’s personal life that I’ve never read before. His family life and relationship with his unrelenting mother stand out especially in the book. Chernow’s treatment of Washington’s financial standing also receive extensive treatment. Bound up in his financial life, of course, were Washington’s slave holdings. Chernow gives a sweeping and recurring account of Washington’s dealings with slaves and the entire issue of slavery. While Washington freed his slaves in his will, he also drove them mercilessly at Mount Vernon. He undertook significant pains to capture runaway slaves, even as he wrestled with the moral quandaries the institution presented.
Chernow emphasizes Washington’s role as Revolutionary War general over his place in history as America’s first President. He writes 300 pages on the Revolution and just 200 on the Presidency, even though the two time periods both lasted about 8 years. As I look back on my underlines and scribbling in the margins, far more come during the early stages of the book, through the Revolutionary War period. Perhaps I was losing steam, but the book lost some of its power after Washington laid down his arms. At very least, Chernow draws the reader powerfully to General George Washington and centers the locus of his attraction in his accomplishments there, rather than as President.
As another main theme, Chernow tries to debunk the image of Washington as a cold, unfeeling, stoic, marble-like statue, simply doing right by his country. Washington’s ambition shines through the pages, especially early in his life. Moreover, Chernow posits that Washington was a man of powerful emotion, often bubbling barely beneath the surface, and overflowing much more frequently that history generally notes. Those emotions ranged from seething anger to tender care for his extended and adopted family, and his army. Chernow does not ascribe Washington’s greatness to these twin personas – stoic and yet temperamental – but he does suggest the tension was a driving force in Washington’s life. His revelation of the emotional dimensions of Washington’s life gave me a new understanding of Washington, and a new appreciation of his complexities.
Overall, Chernow has written an outstanding account of Washington. His detail and anecdotes illuminate the man throughout, and even give new luster to the legend. The book will become the standard one-volume biography of Washington for years to come.