Review of Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I no longer watch television.  I will probably write about the reasons eventually.  Regardless of the reasons, the time saved by not watching television is great.  I now use that time, predominately in the evening, to read books.

As a first reading project, I have decided to read a biography of each US President.  It is an idea that my wife actually thought of first.  She was previously in a conversation with her coworkers discussing ‘which President you would most like to eat lunch with.’  She was disappointed that she could offer little to the conversation, because she knew little about the Presidents.  She thus decided to read a biography of each of the Presidents and I decided to join in the fun.

Which biography to buy?  There are numerous biographies for each of our dead Presidents, especially the famous old ones like George Washington.  Thankfully, other people have endured the President Book Tour and blogged about it.  I give special thanks to the author of the Best Presidential Bios blog, who has read several biographies about each President and offered his recommendations as to the best single biography for each.

For the first US President, I chose to read Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.  It is a single-volume biography discussing Washington’s entire life over about 800 pages of text (not including end notes).  Some pictures of artwork depicting Washington are scattered throughout.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, although it had a couple shortcomings.  The book does a good job explaining Washington’s early life, wherein he lacked formal education but became very knowledgeable through reading and other forms of self-education.  The book explains well Washington’s involvement in the French and Indian War, not hiding the fact that Washington was incredibly brave and a great leader, seemingly not phased by bullets whizzing by his head.  This War, as the book adequately explains, planted the seeds of discontent Washington held towards the British, which denied him a regular commission.

The book shines the most when detailing Washington’s involvement in the American Revolution, showing his brilliancy in command of a rag-tag small army that could have quit at any moment.  These poor soldiers often fought naked for want of clothing and pay, but Washington managed to keep these brave men together and fighting for liberty.  Only Washington’s greatness could have achieved this.  The US would not have won the War for Independence without him.

Where the book, in my opinion, lacked enough detail was the actual Presidency of Washington.  Nevertheless, the book did provide some details that I did not know, such as that Washington had to acquire a loan to travel to his own inauguration.  (Washington was not a rich man, contrary to popular belief.  Despite that, he forwent pay as commander of the revolutionary army.)  The book did convey enough to teach that Washington was a great President, probably the greatest, because of his fear of geographical division and of trespassing on the Constitution.

The largest criticism of the book is the author’s incessant discussion of slavery.  Yes, Washington owned slaves.  Yes, he was torn on how to deal with ending slavery in the newly formed nation.  But the author brought slavery up seemingly every other paragraph, forgetting that he is applying his 21st century views to an 18th century man.  It would be akin to a 23rd century biographer devoting much of a biography on President Obama to the issues of abortion and pornography. Perhaps in the 23rd century, society will view abortion and pornography with the same moral disdain as we view slavery today.  Would it be fair to apply those 23rd century views to President Obama, even though he was born into a system of abortion and pornography, and they are basically socially acceptable?

To summarize, I recommend this book to read as a stand alone biography on George Washington, although the author is too heavy handed on the issue of slavery.


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