California Literary Review

Book Review: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

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October 8th, 2010 at 1:35 pm

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Washington, a Life by Ron Chernow
Washington: A Life
by Ron Chernow
Penguin Press, 904 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


An Army of One

During one of the darkest hours of the American Revolution, a pamphlet appeared warning of danger within the Patriot camp. The 1777 tract entitled The Thoughts of a Freeman condemned the generalship of the very man elevated to command the military forces fighting for American independence. Worse still, the pamphlet asserted that “the people of America have been guilty of idolatry in making a man their God.”

The object of these withering rebukes was General George Washington.

Every major figure in public affairs experiences the vitriol of a “bad press” from time to time. Nevertheless, it is a considerable shock to read indictments of Washington in the letters of Patriot leaders such John Adams, Dr. Benjamin Rush and even Thomas Jefferson. Though some of these remarks were valid criticisms of specific decisions on the part of Washington, the reality of his wartime situation stands in marked contrast to the adulation later heaped upon him. As Abraham Lincoln would experience during the Civil War, Washington was frequently distrusted and damned during his lifetime, often by political colleagues and fellow officers who should have known better.

A magnificent new account of Washington’s life by Ron Chernow paints a far different portrait of “The Father of Our Country” than usually appears in biographies written for general readers. Washington, according to Chernow, was indeed a bold Patriot leader. He was also man of hard-driving personal ambition, with a volcanic temper held in check by constant efforts at self-control. And behind Washington’s austere, unsmiling public pose, an inferiority complex lingered from the genteel poverty of his childhood and youth.

How then did Washington fight and win a two-front war versus the British Empire on the one hand and malcontents in the Patriot camp on the other? How was he able to navigate American democracy to a relatively safe harbor during the tumultuous years of his presidency? Answers can be found, ironically, in his early life in the slave-owning, hierarchical society of colonial Virginia. Washington triumphed during the American Revolution because he had earlier mastered the seething forces of rebellion within himself.

Washington’s education in the harsh realities of life started early. His father died in 1743 when he was eleven years old, the bulk of the estate going to his half-brothers. According to the reckoning of historians, Washington received the equivalent of a seventh grade education. By the standards of 18th century America, that was a satisfactory degree of formal learning. For Washington, however, it was a handicap that plagued him for most of his life. When working with college-educated men like John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, he was frequently at a disadvantage. Much of the stiff formality of Washington’s demeanor and his over reliance on the advice of subordinates resulted from deep feelings of insecurity. For a man thrust on to the center stage of world events, the lack of a college degree was more than a serious liability. It was a nagging threat to his own self-esteem.

As a young boy, Washington was taught to conform and – outwardly, at least – he accepted his place in Virginia society. The very earliest writings of Washington to survive are a set of 110 maxims of personal conduct that he copied by hand. Most dealt with the correct manner of acting in the colonial pecking order, the proper manner of “pulling off your Hat to Persons of Distinction” and injunctions to “always submit your judgment to others with modesty.”

When it came to copying Maxim 110, however, the tone suddenly changed. The future course of Washington’s life and America’s liberty was stunningly embodied in a principle that had nothing to do with bowing and scraping: “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Chernow writes with commendable insight into the childhood struggles of Washington. His father’s early death, Chernow concludes, led Washington to develop “the deeply rooted toughness of children forced to function as adults at an early age.” But the first – and longest – school of adversity for the young Virginian was his relationship with his widowed mother.

One could write a lengthy “psycho-biography” of Washington on the theme that the revolt he led against England, the “mother country” of the thirteen colonies, was a delayed act of defiance toward his mother, Mary Ball Washington. Chernow refrains from doing so, though he does teasingly write that “one is tempted to say that the most formidable general George Washington ever encountered was his mother.” Washington, in fact, could deny nothing to his long-lived “Honored Madam.” This included carrying out her demands to break-up slave families, a practice he loathed and which bothered her conscience not a bit.

The young Washington found solace in trips to the Mount Vernon estate of his half-brother Lawrence and long-term escape beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia’s western frontier. What followed became the stuff of legend.

Leading a hastily raised regiment of Virginians into the wilderness, Washington sought to block the advance of the French from Canada into the Ohio Valley. A skirmish with French troops from the garrison of Fort Duquesne near present-day Pittsburgh ignited the French and Indian War which spread to Europe, the West Indies and India. Washington had fired the first shot of what is officially called the Seven Years War, though Winston Churchill more accurately termed it “The First World War.” After initial disasters, the British achieved total victory. For Washington, the chief legacy of the war was that it supplied him with the military credentials to lead the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Washington came to believe that he was shielded by the “hand of Providence” during these frontier battles. After reading how he escaped death in the bloody ambush known as “Braddock’s Defeat” in 1755, it is hard not to agree with him. The record of Washington’s role in the war, however, was blotted by mistakes and blunders. At one point, he negotiated his way out of a trap, but, not speaking French, he signed his name to a document stating that he had assassinated a French officer. His valor compensated for such missteps. Yet, it was more the fact the he was virtually the “last man standing” during the Braddock debacle, than any special military aptitude, that set him on the paths of glory.

Chernow, in a master stroke of insight, interprets Washington’s complex character to brilliant effect. Almost every success that Washington achieved, Chernow contends, every step upward in the social hierarchy of colonial Virginia, every victory during the Revolution, all came at the price of devastating personal loss, the death of a loved one or a trusted friend or comrade.

During Braddock’s Defeat, for example, Washington lost the friendship and patronage of General Edward Braddock, who was mortally wounded during the battle. For all of his disregard of warnings that the Indian allies of the French would not fight a conventional battle on open ground, Braddock had many qualities to recommend him, especially in Washington’s eyes. The British general befriended the young Virginian and made him a member of his staff, which Braddock called his “family.” When Washington nearly died of disease on the march to capture Fort Duquesne, Braddock sent his personal doctor, with “fever powders” from his own kit to save Washington’s life. Most significantly, Braddock’s death doomed any real chance of achieving what Washington desired most, a commission in His Majesty’s Army.

At home, the cruel cycle of family deaths was even worse. Mount Vernon, Washington’s personal arcadia, came at the price of his beloved half-brother Lawrence’s life. Despite considerable assets inherited from Lawrence, along with Mount Vernon, Washington soon became financially bound to British creditors. Then, in 1773, the death of his step-daughter Martha Parke Custis, nicknamed Patsy like her mother, released funds from her estate that enabled George and Martha Washington to rid themselves of debt. It was a hard bargain. Washington adored the epileptic Patsy, falling to his knees in tears by her deathbed in one of the few public displays of emotion of his entire life.

Finally, in 1781, during the surrender of British forces under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Martha’s surviving son, Jacky, was stricken with fever while visiting Washington’s camp. Jacky, whose many youthful indiscretions had driven his step-father to near distraction, died just at the moment of Washington’s greatest victory. Tragedy shadowed every triumph, sadness loomed over many of the blissful moments of Washington’s life.

Washington was thus an emotionally toughened individual, as well as a battle-hardened veteran when he was commissioned by the Continental Congress on June 19, 1775 as the Commander-in-Chief of the forces fighting to secure the liberties of the thirteen colonies.

In a letter to Martha Washington the previous day, Washington wrote that the “whole army raised for the defense of the American Cause shall be put under my care… You may believe me my dear Patsy, when I assure you in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it.”

The Continental Army at that moment had no other formally commissioned officers but Washington. Its troop strength consisted entirely of undisciplined, ill-equipped short-term militia. These were odds that would have made other leaders decline the dubious honor of supreme command. Washington’s letter is thus a perfect illustration of how his instinctive caution combined with the resolute elements of his character to create a man of action.

It is Washington’s actions that raised him to a central role in the revolt against the British Empire and to the pinnacle of power during the process of nation building that followed. This record of achievement needs to be underscored. Chernow’s biography, for all of its insights into Washington’s character, is primarily a traditional narrative in the heroic “Great Lives” school, rather than a clinical or interpretive study.

Chernow succeeds to a remarkable degree because of his brilliant utilization of the mass of fascinating details that are emerging from the new edition of Washington’s letters and private papers. A team of researchers at the University of Virginia has published sixty hefty volumes, with more to come. Chernow methodically analyzed this mass of documentation to trace the evolution of Washington’s awakening sense of himself as an American patriot. Washington remained very much a hybrid Anglo-American in his private life – his customary breakfast was tea and corn cakes. Yet by the late 1760’s, his letters show that his support for the British Empire had eroded to the point where he could tolerate only the most minimal control of the colonies by King and Parliament.

Advocating armed resistance if necessary in a 1769 letter to fellow-Virginian George Mason, Washington wrote defiantly, “At a time when our lordly masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom,” the colonies should prepare to “avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our ancestors.”

Since one of the liberties that Washington inherited was the right to own slaves, his rhetoric sounds a bit hollow by our standards. In fact, it came off poorly in his era as well. On the eve of the Revolution, Washington warned that the British “will make us as tame and abject as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” Those are the words of a man, courageous, humane and honorable in most facets of his life, who knows that he is in the wrong in another aspect of his conduct.

Chernow is as adept in using Washington’s papers to trace his dawning awareness of the evils of slavery as he is in tracing the arc of Washington’s career in politics and war. None of the 110 maxims that Washington copied as a boy said anything – good, bad or indifferent – about slavery. It was a fact of life. Yet by the last decade of his life, Washington had embraced the idea of emancipating slaves, including a plan to establish a colony for freed slaves in French Guiana. To his friend, Tobias Lear, he announced his hopes “to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings.”

In that one quote, the remote, evasive character of Washington comes closest to being grasped. Washington struggled his entire life to free himself from forces that oppressed him “very repugnantly to my own feelings.” Washington’s instincts lay in the sense of freedom he glimpsed over the Blue Ridge Mountains as a teen-age surveyor. It was the frontier regions, too, that he planned to retreat with the remnant of his forces if British military pressure grew too strong to counter in the Revolutionary War’s main theater of operations along the Atlantic seaboard.

Washington, as Chernow’s epic biography shows, never was able “to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” without realizing that the freedom he craved for himself was the birthright of other human beings too.

For George Washington, the child who copied those 110 maxims was the father of the man who became in time “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

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