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The Real Washington at Last

Bridgeman Art Library
George Washington at Mount Vernon; lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, 1852

Chernow begins by saying that Washington “ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history.” But not anymore, not after the appearance of his book. Chernow hopes that his readers, “instead of having a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation of this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.” That hope should be fulfilled for most readers. One comes away from the book feeling that Washington has finally become comprehensible. One comes to understand how this ambitious Virginia planter, despite numerous defects of judgment and many mistakes as a military commander, nevertheless earned the respect and admiration of his contemporaries.

Indeed, we today tend to lump all the Founders together as an esteemed group of leaders, but Americans at the time never did. In the eyes of his contemporaries Washington towered morally and politically over all the rest of the Founders—he was already being called the “father of his country” when he was commander in chief of the Revolutionary army. One of the reasons Washington said so little in the Constitutional Convention was his realization that if he took a strong position on an issue no one would want publicly to contest him. At the end of the convention he made his only proposal: that the minimum number of people each congressman should represent be lowered from 40,000 to 30,000—an innocuous change that signaled to all the members his support of the document; the proposal was adopted unanimously.

Chernow has not uncovered anything new about Washington or said anything about him that historians had not already known. His Washington is ambitious, self-educated, courageous, passionate, extremely self-controlled, sensitive, politically astute, and wise, with superb judgment and an acute instinct for power. Although there is nothing really original in this characterization, no one before has ever put together between two covers such a convincing depiction of the great man. It is Chernow’s well-paced and readable prose and the smooth organization of his story—divided into six parts with sixty-seven relatively short chapters—together with the sensible and impartial nature of his judgments that make the book so persuasive. Although he deals with all aspects of Washington’s life, both public and private, he keeps his narrative moving and never gets bogged down in excessive detail. His descriptions of Washington’s battles, for example, are clear but economical. He has a knack for summing up a character in a pithy phrase. “The arrogant, irascible Charles Lee…was a painfully thin man with a small head set on a spindly body.” On John Adams: “Rather small and paunchy, with a sharp mind and an argumentative personality, Adams was a farsighted prophet of independence, the curmudgeon who spoke uncomfortable truths.”

Chernow’s awareness of what other historians have said about Washington gives his book great authority, for he is able to bring his evenhanded judgment to contested issues. His handling of Washington’s relationship with Sally Fairfax, for instance, is judicious and balanced, as is his discussion of the charge that Washington fathered a mulatto slave named West Ford: “While historians have learned not to repudiate such stories with knee-jerk rigidity, George Washington’s paternity of West Ford seems highly doubtful.” Chernow always has a sure touch for picking illuminating anecdotes and a nice eye for the appropriate quotation. He writes, for example, that during the siege of Boston in 1775–1776 Washington “had succeeded so brilliantly in pretending to be securely armed that his main supporters overestimated his strength and expected more zeal in dislodging the British.” Then he quotes Washington’s observation—“The means used to conceal my weakness from the enemy conceals it also from our friends and adds to their wonder”—to clinch the point.

Because he is depicting a real and rounded human being and not creating a monument, Chernow makes no effort to hide any of Washington’s flaws or his mistakes of judgment. He does not apologize for these flaws and mistakes, but neither does he use them to discredit the man. He highlights Washington’s early obsession with money, his “naked, sometimes clumsy ambition,” his “tightfisted, sharp-elbowed” business practices, his occasional duplicity in land-dealing, his suppressed anger, his use of “blatantly unfair” tactics—convincing the overseer to allow his supporters to vote first—in winning Virginia elections, his fashion-mongering, and his sensitivity to slights. Chernow’s Washington is someone who “was ill at ease with public oratory and uncomfortable with flattery, perhaps because he secretly craved it.”

Chernow’s discussion of Washington and slavery is fair but unsparing in its candor. He brings up the issue throughout the book and clarifies Washington’s confused and ambivalent attitudes toward slavery better than many more lengthy accounts. Washington, he points out more than once, tended to regard slavery as a fair economic exchange: he clothed and fed his workers, and “in return, I expect such labor as they ought to render.” He never seemed “to understand,” writes Chernow, “why his slaves might regard this tacit bargain as preposterous.”

Being such an indefatigable worker himself, Washington could not comprehend their shirking ways. “He talked caustically about malingering slaves as if they were salaried workers who had failed to earn their wages—a blind spot he never entirely lost.” Yet he was never abusive toward his slaves, and he was scrupulous about keeping slave families together. He often respected the personal lives of his slaves, especially in the case of Billy Lee, his valet and constant companion with whom, says Chernow, he had a

remarkably affectionate, long-standing relationship…. Whether Washington was trotting off to the House of Burgesses, the Continental Congress, or Valley Forge, Lee was the trusted aide in attendance.

In discussing slavery Chernow is always aware of the social and political context in which Washington had to live. He notes, for example, that Virginia in the 1780s was full of anti-slavery sentiment and increasing numbers of manumissions. “Washington,” Chernow writes, “became the target of a subtle but persistent campaign by abolitionists to enlist him in their cause.” He told the abolitionists privately how much he hated slavery and promised to support emancipation in Virginia if it ever came to a vote. “This,” says Chernow, “typified Washington’s ambivalent approach to slavery in the 1780s: he privately made no secret of his disdain for the institution, but neither did he have the courage to broadcast his views or act on them publicly.” Washington shared the “common fantasy among the founders” that abolition could be deferred to some future date. In other words, the burden could be shifted onto later generations.

Yet he came to see, sooner and more acutely than many others, that slavery threatened the American Union to which he had dedicated his life. “I can clearly foresee,” he predicted to an English visitor in 1798, “that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.” In July 1799 he wrote a new will freeing upon his and Martha’s death all the slaves he legally could. (He could not free Martha’s dower slaves, who were committed to the Custis heirs.) Most impressive—and universal—was his provision that the freed slaves “be taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation.”

Chernow calls Washington’s writing of this will “the most courageous action of his career.” From our present perspective it hardly seems to be that, but as Chernow well knows, Washington had to take this bold step in the teeth of opposition from his community, his neighbors, his relatives, and perhaps even Martha herself. “By freeing his slaves,” writes Chernow,

Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery.

Chernow has written his biography with sympathetic detachment, keenly aware of the limitations of life. He has no ax to grind; his only object seems to be to render his subject as fully and as roundly as possible. His understanding of human nature is extraordinary and that is what makes his biography so powerful. Washington’s “pursuit of self-interest and selfless dedication to public service,” he writes, “were often intermingled, sometimes making it hard to disentangle his true motives. Perhaps for this reason, he could always discern both the base and noble sides of human nature.”

Washington was a man who grew and developed through time and experience. “This man of deep emotions and strong opinions,” possessing “a normal quota of human frailty, including a craving for money, status, and fame,” nevertheless

had learned to subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause, evolving into a statesman with a prodigious mastery of political skills and an unwavering sense of America’s future greatness.

His death released an outpouring of mourning. Over four hundred printed eulogies began the process of deification and mythologizing. Preachers compared him to Moses and turned him into a serene and sacred figure, which obscured his tough and passionate nature, making it difficult for future generations to recover the actual man and appreciate his achievements. Abigail Adams rightly rebelled at this image of Washington as a divine figure: “Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.” Chernow agrees: “To be convincing,” he writes, “Washington’s greatness did not need to be cleaned up or sanitized, only honestly presented.” That he has done in this splendid biography.

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