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Magisterial and Indispensable

George Washington -- so inscrutable to those around him, yet so revered for his honorable and transparent qualities.

By From the June 2011 issue

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Washington: A Life
By Ron Chernow
(The Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40)

At the end of the Revolutionary War, as General George Washington traveled to Annapolis, Maryland, to resign his military commission and enter into retirement, the Pennsylvania assembly commissioned a portrait of the victorious continental leader. The chosen artist, Charles Willson Peale, exchanged letters about his subject with his friend Benjamin West, an expatriate in London who was at that time court history painter to King George III. One day the king asked West whether Washington would be head of the army or head of state when the war ended. When West replied that Washington's sole ambition was to return to his estate, the thunderstruck king declared, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world" -- a sentiment shared around the globe. And yet little more than a decade later, President Washington, at the end of his second term, would be pilloried by political opponents and in the American press as monarchist, incompetent, the pawn of smarter men, or, as one paper summarized, a villain who had "cankered the principles of republicanism in an enlightened people."

How is it that the man known, even during his own lifetime, as "The Father of His Country" could be so incomparably adored and yet simultaneously so reviled by the citizens of the country he helped create? Just who was this man so inscrutable to those around him, and yet so revered for his honorable and transparent qualities? Such seemingly redoubtable and insurmountable questions all are answered by Ron Chernow in his magisterial work, Washington: A Life, a biography of such penetrating and effective magnitude of subject, style, and texture that it can easily be predicted to become in the field of American history -- like the man it studies -- truly indispensable.

Washington: A Life is a single-volume, cradle-to-grave biography of the man many people called the First American. It begins with his childhood and upbringing, and continues chronologically through his formative years of personal, military, and legislative experience, and tackles headlong all the major events of the Continental Congress, the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and his two-term presidency. Within all of these public events, Washington's private life is seamlessly interwoven: his great ambition for success and glory; his roles as son, husband, father, and friend; his endeavors as gentleman farmer and businessman; his keen sense of honor and public duty; and his own value of self-worth and eye toward his historical reputation.

While Washington stands at the top of the pantheon of American heroes -- eclipsed, whether correctly or not, typically by Lincoln and occasionally by Franklin Roosevelt -- his sheer distance from us in history has drawn its own sheet over his life. He seems to many Americans today as a truly mythic figure, a marble bust, a painted portrait, a gigantic name on a capital city and a marble obelisk. George Washington, however, was a human with flaws and failures, ambition and personal issues, and yet he truly was that indispensable man to the founding of America and its posterity.

THERE HAVE BEEN some excellent books on Washington in recent years-such as the award-winning Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer -- and some eagerly expected contributions this year -- Edward G. Lengel's Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory and George Washington's First War: His Early Military Adventures by David A. Clary, to name two -- but Chernow's book will be one of the highlights of 2011. Chernow is considered by many to be one of the preeminent biographers of his generation, previously having written the lives of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his magnificent and masterly study of George Washington cannot but solidify and even enhance that reputation.

Washington: A Life is an impressively researched biography, based on contemporary letters and documents -- including an incredibly vast source archive that includes more than 70 volumes of Washington's letters and diaries -- visits to all the relevant locations, and a solid understanding of previous scholarship, as well as a thorough comprehension of the times and context in which Washington lived. It also is a seamlessly executed work. With a life as replete and important as Washington's, Chernow has synthesized it into a highly readable work that, as a biography, maintains a deft balance between factual history and editorial narrative -- he lays out facts and draws conclusions in the best objective traditions of the historical craft and refuses to follow the increasing (and damaging) trend in academia of revisionism, presentism, or numerous other malicious -isms. While some may be tempted to call the book too long at 904 pages-and it is a dense and an involved read-its length well matches the scope of the work.

Washington's great deeds and virtues as general and president are truly as awesome -- in the true meaning of the term -- as most Americans have been taught. And readers of his life will not help but be inspired and awed at the enormity of the man, his achievements, and his dedication to creating and preserving the American experiment. These better-known aspects of Washington certainly crackle off the pages; and yet it is the private Washington, the human Washington often overlooked, that is equally as compelling, building throughout the book with a slow, incandescent burn.

To see Washington as the emotional man that he was is striking. "As a man laden with many secrets who unburdened himself to only a small circle of confidants, Washington had to hide moments of despondency from the army, giving few people access to his grief," Chernow writes of Washington at one point during the war. "In the spring of 1777 a secondhand report reached Lord Howe's ears that a maid in Washington's employ ‘frequently caught him in tears about the house and [said] that, when he is alone, he appears constantly dejected and unhappy.'" Equally surprising was his high temper, which, although infrequently released, impressed all who witnessed it; even Jefferson commented, "he was most tremendous in wrath."

Abigail Adams once wrote of Washington, "Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy." And Washington certainly was not a perfect man. He could be cold and reserved in company, he kept a "cool, quiet antagonism" perpetually between himself and his mother, and he could be cool and calculating in his cultivation of a spotless public demeanor and reputation. Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Washington's character was in his role as planter and master of Mount Vernon. Chernow depicts Washington as a hard-nosed, hard-driving micromanager who brooked no indolence or dissent from any of his workers. Even though he spent years away from home, he wrote detailed and demanding letters to his estate managers, giving exacting advice and asking for meticulous updates and reports. He was faint in his praise and frightening in his unhappiness.

ONE OF THE GREAT inconsistencies in Washington's life was his role of slave owner, and Chernow has done a masterful job explaining and examining just who Washington truly was on this subject. His beliefs and actions on the subject are shown to be confounding and at times even cowardly, such as his refusal of numerous entreaties during his lifetime to free his slaves and support emancipation as a polestar to all Americans and a fulfillment of the democratic principles of the revolution. Instead we see Washington working his slaves in snowstorms and freezing temperatures, even instructing a one-armed slave how to rake with his lone hand, all for the benefit of a full day's labor. He believed that for benevolently feeding, clothing, and sheltering his slaves, they owed him as much work as he demanded. And yet simultaneously he also ensured earnest medical care to all sick slaves, refused to break up families when buying or selling slaves, and, in an act for which he has become famous, freed his slaves in his will. But his belief that the slaves were happy in their condition, and his utter surprise and consternation when slaves ran away, also shows his character as a man of his time.

What is amazing about both Washington as a man and Chernow as a biographer is that Washington's numerous flaws and faults actually ennoble him, not only by his internal conflicts over various issues, but by his commonality with the trials and tribulations faced by all people.

In Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow has contributed a colossal breath to a long-needed resuscitation of popular interest in and study of George Washington. For there is no better example of virtuous character than The Father of His Country. Not only is his epic life and character inspirational and instructive, but so too was his patriotism and sense of civic duty. In a time such as now, so fraught with cynicism toward politicians and government, when the greatness and exceptionalism of America is denigrated by its own citizens, when discourse is no longer civil and national aspirations have seemed to shrivel, some would argue it is time to return to the first principles of America. And to fully understand the foundations of this country, the struggle for independence and the values for which it was fought and sustained, people must understand George Washington.

Chernow achieves in this book that which is the highest attainment of any biographer: he makes his subject whole, multi-dimensional, and, above all, human. The reader sees not just what Washington did, but who he was -- positive and negative, laudable and embarrassing. Chernow's goal, as he writes in the introduction, was to "create a fresh portrait of Washington that will make him real, credible, and charismatic in the same way that he was perceived by his contemporaries," to make his subject "vivid and immediate, rather than the lifeless waxwork he has become for many Americans." Once again, Ron Chernow has succeeded in bringing a great historical figure from eras past into sharp and immediate relief for the present generation.

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About the Author

Jason Emerson is the author of Lincoln the Inventor, The Madness of Mary Todd Lincoln, and a forthcoming biography of Robert Todd Lincoln.