Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

This week I'm reviewing the first of what I suspect will be many biographies to be featured here on the Tuesday slot. Although yes, The Secret History of Wonder Woman was vaguely biographical, but in this case it's a biography of one person in specific, our illustrious commander in chief and first president, George Washington. This particular book, as Chernow outlines in the introduction, is intended to be a cradle-to-grave narrative about the life of George Washington. Perhaps more importantly, Chernow utilizes the voluminous personal papers of Washington, expressly saved for the benefit of posterity, to peel away the holy facade that has built up around Washington in the past two centuries. The trouble with talking about George Washington is that even within his own lifetime Washington developed a larger-than-life reputation and has become almost a secular civic deity of the United States. One of the fifty states is named after him, as is the nation's capital city, and numerous counties, streets, parks, and high schools. No other figure in American history, save perhaps Abraham Lincoln, has become so enshrined in the popular consciousness. Chernow's task, therefore, is to reveal the deeply flawed human being that was Washington of historical fact rather than the demigod Washington of legend. Certainly this is no small task, but it is a vital one.
One of the things that first struck me was how much Washington was a beneficiary of privilege in his early years, which helped to launch his later successes. Washington was the son of a wealthy Virginia planter and although he lost his father at the age of eleven, Washington ended up inheriting a small amount of land and a handful of slaves. Despite not having the benefit of a college education, Washington was guided by his older half-brothers, especially Lawrence, and was introduced to the upper echelons of Virginia society including the Fairfax family of Fairfax county with Colonel Fairfax being highly influential in getting Washington some of his first military commissions and surveying assignments. Furthermore, although Washington suffered the repeated tragedy of the deaths of family members (a fairly common occurrence in the eighteenth century in general and in the southern colonies in specific), he also inherited large amounts of land and slaves from his relatives, including the now iconic plantation estate of Mount Vernon.

And yet, despite his extensive land holdings and other advantages, Washington was often in dire economic straits, much like fellow Virginia planter Thomas Jefferson, although the two could be hardly any different in temperament. Washington was extremely diligent, refusing to waste an hour of the day and driven by an industrious work ethic. Jefferson, at least as he's traditionally portrayed, was a far more relaxed individual and although he kept account books nearly as meticulous as Washington, he made hardly any effort to pay off his accumulated debts compared to Washington. And what is perhaps more interesting to me is Chernow intimates that this was a condition far more common among the landed aristocracy. With easy credit extended to them by London merchants, many Virginia planters would indulge in the most luxurious items that could be ordered from England in displays of conspicuous consumption, advertising to the world their success as farmers and utter lack of concern with such idle affairs as mere money. Inevitably Washington and other planters would drive themselves into debt with their extravagant purchases, but find themselves utterly powerless to economize for to cease purchasing luxury goods would be to announce to the world that you had fallen on hard times and result in a catastrophic loss of social status. For whatever reason I find this entire situation of land-rich and money-poor wannabe aristocrats fascinating, if somewhat abhorrent as the entire system was built upon the backs of slave labor.

Another one of the things that Chernow disassembles in his work is the stoic calm of Washington which we often associate with him in our popular consciousness. As has been jokingly remarked, we cannot imagine George Washington naked. And certainly this is largely a result of design on Washington's part. Washington was enamored with the philosophy of the Roman stoics and always sought to project an aura of calm and cool detachment. Washington very rarely showed emotion in public, always striving to maintain a facade of propriety and this is the image that has been passed down in the popular imagination. However for Washington's circle of intimates, a very small circle of people, a variety of emotions could be displayed. Washington was no stranger to personal tragedy and let those emotions show sometimes, but he also laughed heartily at bawdy jokes as much as the next person. However, the emotion Chernow states Washington experienced the most, and is most commented upon by his circle of intimates, was wrath. Whether it was sullen resentment at the patronizing treatment Washington received at the hands of Englishmen from the Mother Country, or the sheer mind-numbing frustration of trying to keep the Continental Army together, Washington seemed to carry an internal rage with him all his life that occasionally exploded in fits of apoplectic fury. Certainly a far cry from the perpetually calm and collected Washington of legend.

Even Washington's military career is not above reproach, although many more historians have already commented on his service extensively. Upon becoming Commander in Chief in 1775, Washington was certainly not a professional soldier. His experience in the French and Indian War was fairly limited and left him insufficiently prepared for the challenges of command. Looking at Washington's battlefield record alone he's a middling general at best. His attacks at Princeton and Trenton were audacious and extremely successful, but could have ended as badly as his equally audacious plan at Germantown. Yorktown, his other great victory, was accomplished through the help of a French squadron and French engineers, which would have made a siege impossible otherwise. So it is certainly not as a battlefield tactician where Washington deserves praise. However, as Chernow makes abundantly clear, Washington faced considerable challenges just keeping the Continental Army together, sometimes through sheer force of will alone. The Continental Army often lacked sufficient food, clothing, shelter, gunpowder, or even weapons, and Congress was often several months in arrears in regards to pay as well. Compounding this problem was the practice of enlistments of only one year, which resulted in Washington and his officers spending half the year training their men into effective fighters, only to watch these men go back home and start the process of training raw recruits all over again. The fact that a Continental Army existed at all during the years of the Revolution and didn't melt away in the face of such challenges is a testament to Washington's determination and leadership.

Washington's tenure as president was no less challenging than his stint as Commander in Chief. Although beginning with a team of some of the brightest minds in the United States, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, Washington's administration began to divide along differing interpretations of the Constitution, eventually coalescing into the Federalists led by Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson. For his first term, the infighting remained fairly civil and restrained, but Washington's health suffered greatly and he had to undergo at least two operations to remove tumors from his thigh. Despite his hopes that the new federal government would soon be established and he could retire to Mount Vernon in two years, Washington's sense of duty called him to serve a second term. The resentments and differences that had been boiling eventually spilled over into open fighting through newspaper proxies and even Washington, who tried to remain above party politics, was slandered and assaulted in newspapers, no longer a figure above criticism. With the resignation of his cabinet officers, Washington had to make do with less talented individuals, providing further fuel for his critics, and by the end of his second term Washington was utterly exhausted. It's hardly surprising that Washington gladly left for what he believed was a well-deserved retirement to Mount Vernon.

No biography of Washington would be truly complete without taking a critical view of his involvement with slavery, something which is usually glossed over or even euphemistically omitted from the more hagiographic biographies. By the time of his death Washington was responsible for over three hundred slaves, about half of whom were dower slaves and legally the property of Martha, who would revert to the ownership of the Custis family upon her death. The other half were slaves which Washington owned outright, and would become a problem that would vex him off and on for years. There is of course, a certain irony in Washington being a proponent of liberty and the equality of man while at the same time owning some hundred and fifty people as property. Washington also sought to get as much work as possible from his slaves, exhorting them to greater efforts even when he took time for relaxation and amusements. George and Martha seemed to remain for their entire lives utterly oblivious as to why slaves would not be motivated to work hard and felt equally baffled and betrayed whenever ''well behaved'' slaves ran away. At the same time Washington seemed vaguely aware of the unsavory moral character of slavery and, to some extent, bothered by it, trying to keep ads for fugitive slaves as discreet as possible and striving to avoid breaking up slave families. But Washington also had practical, economic reasons to dislike slavery. Constantly strapped for cash, Washington calculated that the amount of upkeep spent on his slaves, such as food and clothing, was insufficient to the amount of work he managed to get out of them, especially when including slaves to young, old, or sick to do any meaningful work. Mount Vernon ultimately had far more slaves than Washington could gainfully employ and so manumission seemed the best option for him, both morally and economically. Of course, he only decided to manumit his slaves after the death of both himself and his wife, and this was only done for the slaves he owned outright, Martha Washington's dower slaves reverting to the Custis estate upon her death. It certainly was not an area of moral strength for Washington.

Overall, this biography is rather interesting because Chernow goes into such great detail to show  Washington as a real person instead of the demigod of American legend. Towards the end of the book Chernow slips a little back into the awed reverence which Washington more frequently receives, but for the most part he takes a far more critical view. It certainly expanded my knowledge of Washington as the man he was and removes quite a bit of the mystique he's developed over the past two hundred years. The version that I listened to was read by Scott Brick which was adequate, but nothing exceptional as far as I can tell. If you're looking for an in-depth Washington biography, this seems to be an excellent choice.

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