Washington: A Life
by Ron Chernow
I recently visited Mount Vernon, George Washington's prized estate and residence in Northern Virginia. It was beautiful, elegant in its simplicity and cunning in its attempts to appear richer than it really was. The mansion still stands exactly as George left it; the outbuildings with his stables, overseer's quarters, slaves' cabins, meat drying hut, blacksmith hut, all preserved as he would have known them. The majestic view of the Potomac from his luxurious piazza remains nearly unchanged, and even his bedroom where he died in 1799 is untouched, forever holding the ghost of the man who is perhaps one of the most famous American historical figures of all time. But for all his fame, George Washington has been mythologized so thoroughly that we hardly see his humanity, his flaws and passions; we only see his god-like reign in the American Revolution and as first President of the United States, his inability to tell a lie, his horrific dental problems and still more horrific dentures, and something to do with a cherry tree. But in reading Ron Chernow's masterful biography, I was thrilled to discover that the real George Washington, with all his rage, insecurity, sarcasm, inappropriate romantic crushes, and profound internal conflicts, is far more fascinating than the legend.
Chernow accomplishes something in this book that is incredibly admirable to me, something difficult to achieve, yet of unmeasurable importance for any great history. After remarking that "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" (a stunningly written sentence!), Chernow goes on to excavate the flesh and blood man from this marble prison and introduce the reader to the real Washington in wonderful detail. The depth of his research is remarkable---the amount of primary sources he references is amazing, and the quality of his writing is beyond compare. Chernow offers constant modern psychological analyses of George the man, honest and sympathetic, yet does it so subtly that it never breaks the beautiful narrative of the past. His writing is majestic and masterful, but so accessible for even the amateur historian. I loved every single page of it, which is all the more impressive because the book had enough pages to equal the weight of a small child.
This book goes into so much detail about Washington's life that it is impossible to summarize. Let it suffice to say that Chernow delves into George's heritage and young life, his role as General during the American Revolution, his two terms as President of the United States, and his all-too brief stint as a common farmer before his death. But this is not some dry, factual history. Chernow goes out of his way to show the incredible passion behind George Washington that we usually never see: the tempestuous temper; the sappy romanticism and chivalrous love; the constant anxiety over being perceived as less important than he felt; and his "forbidden rage." It is stellar, wonderful, utterly humanizing and utterly human.
This is a model of what the young George Washington might have looked like in his surveying days. Displayed in the museum on Washington's Mount Vernon Estate.
So many things I learned from this exquisite biography were my favorite. I never knew that the young George was six feet tall with reddish brown hair and hands so gigantic he had to wear custom-made gloves. He also obsessed over his clothing, though his "...somewhat oddly shaped body made him the bane of his tailors." Apparently he had a lot of junk in the trunk. Washington also had crazy mother issues, seemingly through no fault of his own (she sometimes misspelled his name in letters). Sometimes his background and feelings around his mom sounded suspiciously similar to that of a serial killer. Not that I'm implying anything.
George had malaria, smallpox, and dysentery within a handful of years. His diary was once seized by the French and published in Paris to a jeering public, to his eternal mortification. He was terrified at the thought of public speaking, because of his primitive dentures. His false teeth sometimes sprung violently out of his mouth as he was speaking. George was an expert at the "...subtle art of seeking power by refraining from too obvious a show of ambition." In other words, he played hard to get and clamored to get power by pretending he didn't want it, a scheme that works just as well today. George was not a prudish man. Apparently J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) owned some letters written by Washington, and destroyed them in the 1920's, claiming they were too "smutty." J.P. Morgan is now my enemy.
George's human quirks are too delightful to be ignored. He prided himself on how far he could throw stones. He loved hunting, and once killed five bald eagles in one day (that's really embarrassing for him now). He was a devoted step-father and step-grandfather, having no children of his own. He cried a lot, according to contemporary sources. He endured bitter backstabbing from his most trusted aides and friends in the government. He kept his own pulled teeth and tried to make them into dentures. He truly believed in the abolishment of slavery but could never figure out how to achieve it in his day. Upon his death, his will dictated that all his slaves would be freed when Martha died, but when George was gone she became convinced they were trying to murder her to gain their freedom, so she freed them early. Washington was known for his innovative ideas about agriculture and farming, to the point where he was known as both the Father of our Country and the Father of the American Mule.
Chernow presents a Washington that is both vain yet humble, ambitious yet eager for a private life, desirous of immortal fame yet desperate to retire to his farming; yet he was the only President to date to be elected unanimously. This was a truly human man, who cheekily named his dog 'Cornwallis', after the defeated British General; he snuck out of towns early to avoid fanfare; and truly despised public life toward the end, wanting only to be back on Mt. Vernon managing his farm.
In Chernow's biography, George Washington is finally portrayed as a real man, a flesh and blood person with flaws, political incorrectness, and humor. He is often hilarious, often admirable, often worthy of mocking, and often worthy of warm affection in this wonderful book. Chernow's skill finally lets the real George Washington break free of his marble prison and saturate the modern world with his utterly human and relatable personality. I feel so lucky that I got to see George Washington's home and belongings in my recent trip, although I will have nightmares for the rest of my life after seeing the real set of his horrifying dentures.