Book Review: Washington — A Life by Ron Chernow

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I bought this book.
All pic­tures were taken by me on our tripp to Mt. Ver­non. Click on the pic­ture to read the trip journal.

Book Review: Washington - A Life by Ron Chernow My rat­ing for Wash­ing­ton: A Life — 5


"Wash­ing­ton: A Life" by Ron Cher­now is an encom­pass­ing biog­ra­phy of George Wash­ing­ton.  This  mar­velous book breaks the wooden image of Wash­ing­ton and brings out the char­ac­ter of the man we all learned about with all his charm and personality.

Do your patri­otic duty.  Buy the book here

Over­look­ing the Potomac

Statue of Wash­ing­ton in Mt. Ver­non Vis­i­tor Center


This is the kind of his­tory book I love.  Mr. Cher­now tells of lit­tle known anec­dotes about George Wash­ing­ton which not only tell of of his char­ac­ter, but even rel­e­vant to this day.  Some of the sto­ries the author  relates are laugh-out funny, the type that no-one can make up, the type that if you read them in a fic­tional book you'd hiss and throw the book at the wall — yet they are true.

The self crit­i­cism of Wash­ing­ton lit­er­ally leaps out of this book, that is the major dif­fer­ence I found between this biog­ra­phy and "His Excel­lency" (book review).  Wash­ing­ton always inter­nal­ized new things he learns and is able to change even though it goes against every­thing he knew to be true.  One can see how over a life­time of slave own­er­ship his views towards this prac­tice have changed from one end to the other.

Ron Cher­now is not only a won­der­ful his­to­rian, but also a mas­ter­ful story teller.  In this book Cher­now painted  George Wash­ing­ton in a relat­able, unfor­get­table real­ism while keep­ing the story is vividflow­ing and com­pelling.  Why, it's almost like you're read­ing fic­tion instead of a biog­ra­phy.
Then again, I always main­tained that no fic­tion story can be as good as his­tory, oth­er­wise it would almost be laugh­able.
"Who makes up this stuff", we would cry to the heavens.

Which author in their right mind would invent a char­ac­ter like Mary Ball Wash­ing­ton, George's mother.   Poor George couldn't earn a word of praise from his emo­tion­ally numb  mother, not as a loyal son, gen­eral, pres­i­dent or bene­fac­tor.  Not only that, Mrs. Wash­ing­ton peti­tioned the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture for a pen­sion… and she was rich!
Laugh­able — if in fiction.

On an off shoot, while the book is about George Wash­ing­ton, I loved how Mr. Cher­now pep­pered the nar­ra­tive with a few sharp wit­ted quotes from John Adams (review of "John Adams" by David McCul­lough) — funny today as they were when written.

I have read many his­tory books, sev­eral about Wash­ing­ton and I must put this one on the top of the list, the extra­or­di­nary qual­ity of the writ­ing and the psy­cho­log­i­cal insights are worth the price of admis­sion by themselves.

Mt. Ver­non, View from the Potomac

Washington's Fancy Coach

"Wash­ing­ton: A Life" is divided into six parts:

The Fron­tiers­man:
starts with a quick his­tory of the Wash­ing­ton fam­ily all the way to the time young George left the British Army for the life of a hap­pily mar­ried Vir­ginia planter.  Along the way the read­ers learn how "George" became "Wash­ing­ton" through his tri­als and tribu­la­tions in the French-Indian War as well as the hard lessons he learned from being a sec­ond class cit­i­zen to his British born counterparts.

The expe­ri­ence young Wash­ing­ton gained in these early con­flicts were invalu­able to his belief in a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment (he couldn't get troops to pro­tect the fron­tier from other states), no to men­tion his dis­dain for short sighted politicians.

The Planter:
After giv­ing up his mil­i­tary Wash­ing­ton mar­ries the wealthy widow Martha Custis and set­tles into domes­tic bliss as a Vir­gin­ian gentleman-farmer.  How­ever, finan­cial trou­ble and fam­ily tragedy destroy this illu­sion, cou­pled with yet more embar­rass­ment from Eng­land as well as restric­tive laws and unfair judg­ments against the colo­nials.  The for­merly loyal Eng­lish sub­ject has com­mit­ted him­self to the  rev­o­lu­tion which will make him world famous.

The Gen­eral:
Tak­ing con­trol of a non-existent Con­ti­nen­tal Army, Washington's great­est accom­plish­ment was keep­ing it together.  Dur­ing the though eight years of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War the only con­stant was Wash­ing­ton who had to hone his mil­i­tary skills as long with his polit­i­cal skills "deal­ing with self­ish, apa­thetic, states and bureau­cratic incom­pe­tence".
By step­ping down, return­ing his com­mis­sion and going back to his farm Wash­ing­ton became, accord­ing to King George III"the great­est man in the world".

The States­man:
Touches on the years between the end of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War and the time Wash­ing­ton was unan­i­mously elected to be pres­i­dent.  As much as Wash­ing­ton wished to remain in Mount  Ver­non, he adhered the call of Con­gress and helped get the Con­sti­tu­tion accepted by nine of the orig­i­nal 13 states in order to cre­ate a union.

The Pres­i­dent:
Thrusted into another pub­lic job, Wash­ing­ton grudg­ingly accept and leaves Mount Ver­non, again, to the tem­po­rary cap­i­tal city of New York.  Real­iz­ing that every­thing he does not only sets a prece­dence, but will also be scru­ti­nized for ages, Wash­ing­ton forges and defines the unique role of the Pres­i­dent & the Exec­u­tive branch.

The Leg­end:
Spend­ing the twi­light of his years in Mount Ver­non Wash­ing­ton was still plagued with finan­cial wor­ries.  As much as Wash­ing­ton wanted to get away from the polit­i­cal the­atre, the the­atre still found him espe­cially dur­ing the "Quasi-War" with France dur­ing John Adams' tenure.  George Wash­ing­ton died after expos­ing him­self to the ele­ments and falling ill.

Washington's tomb in Mt. Vernon

George Washington's Whiskey

Zohar — Man of la Book

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