Washington: A Life

Washington: A Life

3.7 276
by Ron Chernow
     
 

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Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington

In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply

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Overview

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington

In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president.

Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man. A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master.

At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.

In this unique biography, Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America's founding. With a dramatic sweep worthy of its giant subject, Washington is a magisterial work from one of our most elegant storytellers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his introduction, veteran biographer Chernow is clear about his goals. Using the recent "explosion of research," he wants to render George Washington "real" and "credible," to replace "frosty respect" with "visceral appreciation." In many respects, Chernow succeeds. He gives us a Washington who starts with limited education and means and, through a remarkable combination of timely deaths, an incredible capacity for hard work, a shrewd marriage, astonishing physical hardiness and courage, a propensity for land speculation, and a gift for finding influential patrons, transforms himself into a soldier, well-to-do planter, local official, and eventually the only real choice to command the Continental army, preside over the Constitutional Convention, and serve as the first president. Chernow makes familiar scenes fresh (like the crossing of the Delaware) and expertly brings the provisional revolutionary and early Republican eras to life. Along the way, however, he mistakes "visceral" for ardent; while he never hides Washington's less than saintly moments or shirks the vexed question of slavery, he often seems to ignore the data he's collected. Examples of shady dealing are quickly followed by tales of Washington's unimpeachable ethics or impeccable political savvy. At times it feels as if Chernow, for all his careful research and talent for synthesis, is in the grip of a full-scale crush. The result is a good book that would have been great if better edited, and if Chernow had trusted that Washington's many merits, even when accompanied by his faults, would speak for themselves. (Oct.)
Library Journal
In this cradle-to-grave biography of the Founding Father, notable biographer Chernow (Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller) thoroughly recounts how Washington rose to prominence in the French and Indian War, parlayed that early heroism into international fame as general of the Continental army during the American Revolution, and, as America's first President, unified a young nation and shaped its government—and he offers deeper explorations of, for example, Washington's cold relationship with his mother, his heavy reliance on younger devotees such as Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, and his contradictory actions regarding slavery. Chernow's Washington is a reluctant celebrity who perpetually tries to retire from national service but refuses to turn his back on an embryonic republican country struggling with its newfound freedom. The narrative relies heavily on Washington's papers, but Chernow also liberally cites other primary sources and previous biographies. While objective for the most part, he occasionally offers well-grounded opinions on Washington's character and political and military actions. VERDICT This broadly and deeply researched work is a major addition to Washington scholarship—every era should have its new study of him—and it should appeal to informed lay readers and undergraduates interested in stepping beyond the typical textbook treatment.—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Janet Maslin
…deeply rewarding as a whole, and it does genuinely amplify and recast our perceptions of Washington's importance…This new portrait offers a fresh sense of what a groundbreaking role Washington played, not only in physically embodying his new nation's leadership but also in interpreting how its newly articulated constitutional principles would be applied. A more ostentatiously regal leader could never have accomplished as much as this seemingly reluctant hero achieved.
—The New York Times
Andrew Cayton
…books about Washington continue to appear at such an astonishing rate that the publication of Ron Chernow's prompts the inevitable question: Why another one? An obvious answer is that Chernow is no ordinary writer. Like his popular biographies of John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton, his Washington while long, is vivid and well paced. If Chernow's sense of historical context is sometimes superficial, his understanding of psychology is acute and his portraits of individuals memorable. Most readers will finish this book feeling as if they have actually spent time with human beings.
—The New York Times Book Review
T. J. Stiles
Let's be clear: Washington is a true achievement…In organically unifying Washington's private and public lives, he accomplishes a feat that eludes many biographers. And he propels readers forward. There were moments on my march to the end of his story on Page 817 when I thought he could have shortened the trip, yet I still felt that the writing was purposeful, not merely encyclopedic.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
Truly magnificent… [a] well-researched, well-written and absolutely definitive biography” –Andrew Roberts, The Wall Street Journal

Superb… the best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written. [Chernow’s] understanding of human nature is extraordinary and that is what makes his biography so powerful.” –Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books

“Chernow displays a breadth of knowledge about Washington that is nothing short of phenomenal… never before has Washington been rendered so tangibly in such a smart, tenaciously researched volume as Chernow's opus… a riveting read...” –Douglas Brinkley, The Los Angeles Times

“Until recently, I’d never believed that there could be such a thing as a truly gripping biography of George Washington…Well, I was wrong. Ron Chernow’s huge (900 pages) Washington: A Life, which I’ve just finished, does all that and more. I can’t recommend it highly enough—as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment. It’s as luxuriantly pleasurable as one of those great big sprawling, sweeping Victorian novels.”  –Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker

“[Ron Chernow] has done justice to the solid flesh, the human frailty and the dental miseries of his subject—and also to his immense historical importance… This is a magnificently fair, full-scale biography.” –The Economist

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594202667
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/05/2010
Pages:
928
Sales rank:
101,760
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Read "Surprising Facts About George Washington" from Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Prelude
The Portrait Artist

In March 1793 Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express purpose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist. Though born in Rhode Island and reared in Newport, Stuart had escaped to the cosmopolitan charms of London during the war and spent eighteen years producing portraits of British and Irish grandees. Overly fond of liquor, prodigal in his spending habits, and with a giant brood of children to support, Stuart had landed in the Marshalsea Prison in Dublin, most likely for debt, just as Washington was being sworn in as first president of the United States in 1789.

For the impulsive, unreliable Stuart, who left a trail of incomplete paintings and irate clients in his wake, George Washington emerged as the savior who would rescue him from insistent creditors. "When I can net a sum sufficient to take me to America, I shall be off to my native soil," he confided eagerly to a friend. "There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits… and if I should be fortunate, I will repay my English and Irish creditors." In a self-portrait daubed years earlier, Stuart presented himself as a restless soul, with tousled reddish-brown hair, keen blue eyes, a strongly marked nose, and a pugnacious chin. This harried, disheveled man was scarcely the sort to appeal to the immaculately formal George Washington.

Once installed in New York, Stuart mapped out a path to Washington with the thoroughness of a military campaign. He stalked Washington's trusted friend Chief Justice John Jay and rendered a brilliant portrait of him, seated in the full majesty of his judicial robes. Shortly afterward Stuart had in hand the treasured letter of introduction from Jay to President Washington that would unlock the doors of the executive residence in Philadelphia, then the temporary capital.

As a portraitist, the garrulous Stuart had perfected a technique to penetrate his subjects' defenses. He would disarm them with a steady stream of personal anecdotes and irreverent wit, hoping that this glib patter would coax them into self-revelation. In the taciturn George Washington, a man of granite self-control and a stranger to spontaneity, Gilbert Stuart met his match. From boyhood, Washington had struggled to master and conceal his deep emotions. When the wife of the British ambassador later told him that his face showed pleasure at his forthcoming departure from the presidency, Washington grew indignant: "You are wrong. My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings!" He tried to govern his tongue as much as his face: "With me it has always been a maxim rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions."

When Washington swept into his first session with Stuart, the artist was awestruck by the tall, commanding president. Predictably, the more Stuart tried to pry open his secretive personality, the tighter the president clamped it shut. Stuart's opening gambit backfired. "Now, sir," Stuart instructed his sitter, "you must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart, the painter." To which Washington retorted drily that Mr. Stuart need not forget "who he is or who General Washington is."

A master at sizing people up, Washington must have cringed at Stuart's facile bonhomie, not to mention his drinking, snuff taking, and ceaseless chatter. With Washington, trust had to be earned slowly, and he balked at instant familiarity with people. Instead of opening up with Stuart, he retreated behind his stolid mask. The scourge of artists, Washington knew how to turn himself into an impenetrable monument long before an obelisk arose in his honor in the nation's capital.

As Washington sought to maintain his defenses, Stuart made the brilliant decision to capture the subtle interplay between his outward calm and his intense hidden emotions, a tension that defined the man. He spied the extraordinary force of personality lurking behind an extremely restrained facade. The mouth might be compressed, the parchment skin drawn tight over ungainly dentures, but Washington's eyes still blazed from his craggy face. In the enduring image that Stuart captured and that ended up on the one-dollar bill—a magnificent statement of Washington's moral stature and sublime, visionary nature—he also recorded something hard and suspicious in the wary eyes with their penetrating gaze and hooded lids.

With the swift insight of artistic genius, Stuart grew convinced that Washington was not the placid and composed figure he presented to the world. In the words of a mutual acquaintance, Stuart had insisted that "there are features in [Washington's] face totally different from what he ever observed in that of any other human being; the sockets of the eyes, for instance, are larger than he ever met with before, and the upper part of the nose broader. All his features, [Stuart] observed, were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forests, it was his opinion that [Washington] would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes." The acquaintance confirmed that Washington's intimates thought him "by nature a man of fierce and irritable disposition, but that, like Socrates, his judgment and great self-command have always made him appear a man of a different cast in the eyes of the world."

Although many contemporaries were fooled by Washington's aura of cool command, those who knew him best shared Stuart's view of a sensitive, complex figure, full of pent-up passion. "His temper was naturally high-toned [that is, high-strung], but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it," wrote Thomas Jefferson. "If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in wrath." John Adams concurred. "He had great self-command… but to preserve so much equanimity as he did required a great capacity. Whenever he lost his temper, as he did sometimes, either love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his weakness from the world." Gouverneur Morris agreed that Washington had "the tumultuous passions which accompany greatness and frequently tarnish its luster. With them was his first contest, and his first victory was over himself… Yet those who have seen him strongly moved will bear witness that his wrath was terrible. They have seen, boiling in his bosom, passion almost too mighty for man."

So adept was Washington at masking these turbulent emotions behind his fabled reserve that he ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved. He seems to lack the folksy appeal of an Abraham Lincoln, the robust vigor of a Teddy Roosevelt, or the charming finesse of a Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, George Washington has receded so much in our collective memory that he has become an impossibly stiff and inflexible figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human. How this seemingly dull, phlegmatic man, in a stupendous act of nation building, presided over the victorious Continental Army and forged the office of the presidency is a mystery to most Americans. Something essential about Washington has been lost to posterity, making him seem a worthy but plodding man who somehow stumbled into greatness.

From a laudable desire to venerate Washington, we have sanded down the rough edges of his personality and made him difficult to grasp. He joined in this conspiracy to make himself unknowable. Where other founders gloried in their displays of intellect, Washington's strategy was the opposite: the less people knew about him, the more he thought he could accomplish. Opacity was his means of enhancing his power and influencing events. Where Franklin, Hamilton, or Adams always sparkled in print or in person, the laconic Washington had no need to flaunt his virtues or fill conversational silences. Instead, he wanted the public to know him as a public man, concerned with the public weal and transcending egotistical needs.

Washington's lifelong struggle to control his emotions speaks to the issue of how he exercised leadership as a politician, a soldier, a planter, and even a slaveholder. People felt the inner force of his nature, even if they didn't exactly hear it or see it; they sensed his moods without being told. In studying his life, one is struck not only by his colossal temper but by his softer emotions: this man of deep feelings was sensitive to the delicate nuances of relationships and prone to tears as well as temper. He learned how to exploit his bottled-up emotions to exert his will and inspire and motivate people. If he aroused universal admiration, it was often accompanied by a touch of fear and anxiety. His contemporaries admired him not because he was a plaster saint or an empty uniform but because they sensed his unseen power. As the Washington scholar W. W. Abbot noted, "An important element in Washington's leadership both as a military commander and as President was his dignified, even forbidding, demeanor, his aloofness, the distance he consciously set and maintained between himself and nearly all the rest of the world."9

The goal of the present biography is 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. By gleaning anecdotes and quotes from myriad sources, especially from hundreds of eyewitness accounts, I have tried to make him vivid and immediate, rather than the lifeless waxwork he has become for many Americans, and thereby elucidate the secrets of his uncanny ability to lead a nation. His unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty, and civic-mindedness—these exemplary virtues were achieved only by his ability to subdue the underlying volatility of his nature and direct his entire psychological makeup to the single-minded achievement of a noble cause.

A man capable of constant self-improvement, Washington grew in stature throughout his life. This growth went on subtly, at times imperceptibly, beneath the surface, making Washington the most interior of the founders. His real passions and often fiery opinions were typically confined to private letters rather than public utterances. During the Revolution and his presidency, the public Washington needed to be upbeat and inspirational, whereas the private man was often gloomy, scathing, hot-blooded, and pessimistic.

For this reason, the new edition of the papers of George Washington, started in 1968 and one of the great ongoing scholarly labors of our time, has provided an extraordinary window into his mind. The indefatigable team of scholars at the University of Virginia has laid a banquet table for Washington biographers and made somewhat outmoded the monumental Washington biographies of the mid-twentieth century: the seven volumes published by Douglas Southall Freeman (1948 – 57) and the four volumes by James T. Flexner (1965 – 72). This book is based on a close reading of the sixty volumes of letters and diaries published so far in the new edition, supplemented by seventeen volumes from the older edition to cover the historical gaps. Never before have we had access to so much material about so many aspects of Washington's public and private lives.

In recent decades, many fine short biographies of Washington have appeared as well as perceptive studies of particular events, themes, or periods in his life. My intention is to produce a large-scale, one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative that will be both dramatic and authoritative, encompassing the explosion of research in recent decades that has enriched our understanding of Washington as never before. The upshot, I hope, will be that 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.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Truly magnificent… [a] well-researched, well-written and absolutely definitive biography” –Andrew Roberts, The Wall Street Journal

Superb… the best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written. [Chernow’s] understanding of human nature is extraordinary and that is what makes his biography so powerful.” –Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books

“Chernow displays a breadth of knowledge about Washington that is nothing short of phenomenal… never before has Washington been rendered so tangibly in such a smart, tenaciously researched volume as Chernow's opus… a riveting read...” –Douglas Brinkley, The Los Angeles Times

“Until recently, I’d never believed that there could be such a thing as a truly gripping biography of George Washington…Well, I was wrong. Ron Chernow’s huge (900 pages) Washington: A Life, which I’ve just finished, does all that and more. I can’t recommend it highly enough—as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment. It’s as luxuriantly pleasurable as one of those great big sprawling, sweeping Victorian novels.” –Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker

“[Ron Chernow] has done justice to the solid flesh, the human frailty and the dental miseries of his subject—and also to his immense historical importance… This is a magnificently fair, full-scale biography.” –The Economist

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