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Washington: A Life

de Ron Chernow

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In "Washington : a Life" celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation, dashing forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man, and revealing an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people.
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Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. Penguin, 2010.
When he took up writing the life of George Washington, Ron Chernow had already written a well-reviewed biography of Nelson Rockefeller and the life of Alexander Hamilton that so inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda. Washington was a natural choice for Chernow’s next major biographical project. He begins with a description of the famous portraits of Washington done by Gilbert Stuart in the 1790s that Chernow says reveal a man concealing intense, often conflicting emotions under an icy reserve. That tension, Chernow says, is the key to the strengths and weaknesses of Washington’s character.
Washington had to learn self-control in dealing with his demanding, unaffectionate mother. Chernow could find no evidence that she ever said a loving word to her famous son. She resented the public and military obligations that drew him away from home where he would not be under her control and manage her farm for her. He always behaved with perfect, polite formality toward her and never let show the anger he must have felt. To strike out at her would have been unseemly.
Reputation mattered to Washington. He never wanted anyone to say that he had not done his duty by his mother. As a young man he craved military advancement and honor. In fact, the English may have only themselves to blame for his taking up arms against them rather than commanding redcoats in the Revolution. In the French and Indian War, he fought bravely, and for the most part, competently for the British, but his British superiors never gave him the respect he thought he had earned.
He was always brave and lucky in battle. During the French and Indian War and the Revolution, he had horses shot out from under him and bullet holes in his coat, but he escaped without a scratch. His performance as general was mixed. He was no tactical genius, but he had undeniable charisma and command presence. He demanded loyalty from his troops and was severe with those he thought violated his trust.
His true genius, Chernow argues, was not as a soldier but as a politician, and his chief virtue as a politician was the ability to hold his tongue, so that every word he uttered demanded attention. He was the temperamental opposite of John Adams, who said of him after his death: “That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station was equally past dispute.” Washington, though, often said such things about himself. He never accepted a position without telling people he felt inadequate and unprepared for the job he was about to undertake.
Chernow was at his best analyzing Washington’s contradictory and compartmentalized feelings about slavery. Intellectually, he thought slavery was a bad institution and favored its gradual elimination. At the same time, he had no doubt that he was culturally and intellectually superior to the people he owned and that he deserved the privilege he got from their labor. As he had with the soldiers under his command, he expected and demanded loyalty from the enslaved people under his care. He diligently pursued and punished slaves and indentured servants who ran away. He provided better food, clothing, and medical care than many other planters, but he could never understand why so many of the people he seldom referred to as slaves did not see his care for their freedom as a fair exchange. In his will, he did not free the slaves he owned until Martha’s death, leaving her in the care of people who had reason to hope she died quickly.
Mysteries remain. Martha burned all her correspondence with her husband, leaving future biographers gnashing their teeth. George was always something of a flirt and was infatuated with Sally Fairfax, the wife of a neighboring planter. Whether the relationship ever became physical is something snoops like me would like to know.
Chernow knows what he is doing as a biographer. Now, on to his biography of Grant. 5 stars. ( )
  Tom-e | Mar 12, 2022 |
The first American President, against whom all others are judged, has a most impressive story of his life, each step along his journey leading him to become the unique individual capable of creating America. While certainly other persons may have been able to lead the armies, or be our first President, no other individual of the time could have done both, nor as well as he did. He well deserves the praise he gets in American accolades.

However this review is about the book, not just Washington's life. I am setting out to read a biography on each President's life and this was a great one to start out on. Chernow is a great author, capable of pulling the reader in to both give fun anecdotes and discuss deep character developments. This biography is more than the story of Washington though, it is the story of the origin of America, the personalities of the Founding Fathers (who cannot be lumped together of one mindset and desires), the precedents of the Presidency set forth by Washington, the causes for the Revolution and more. In the center of everything was Washington, whether he wanted to be or not (he usually wanted to be, his ambitions knew nearly no bounds, yet he wished for others to want him before he could admit wanting to be in the center of things).

Through reading Chernow's book you see the conflicting natures of Washington, from his wrestling with the morals of slavery (his greatest failing being his never ending the practice), how a series of deaths allowed him to have the wealth to attain his status (his older brother, his wife's former husband, his stepson & stepdaughter) despite his being in constant debt. Washington's life brought him to where he was from his initial forays in the French & Indian War cementing his military reputation, constantly being downtrodden on by the British elites just for being a Colonial leading to his taking command of the Continental Army where while he was a good general, it was his ability to keep the army together that was his true gift. At any point it may have fallen apart under any other general, but not Washington. What set him clearly apart from other great men of the time was his belief in the republican ideal of a government having dominance over the military and that an individual should serve the country. If someone else had lead the armies, we would likely have had a King, but not with Washington.

And as he assumed the Presidency he set precedents that would outlast him for hundreds of years, stepping down from office, setting up a strong central government, allowing for a smooth transition of power, adherence to the Constitution, a strong Executive that still answered to the legislative branch, he carefully balanced the office to allow it to succeed hopefully for many hundreds of more years.

All in all is this worth reading? Yes, it is if you want a read into one of the greatest individuals who has ever lived and to whom every American owes a great debt of gratitude. ( )
  driscoll42 | Feb 28, 2022 |
This must be the longest book I've ever read.

A stunningly in depth chronicle of the first u.s. president which examines every aspect of his life in compiling a full profile of this mythical figure. I feel rather like I could psychoanalyze him frankly, that's how much this book seems to get inside his head. By the end though, I was rather wishing he would just die already; easily a hundred pages could have been excised from this weighty tome without effecting it's quality in the slightest. ( )
  fionaanne | Nov 11, 2021 |
This is the third book I’ve read that’s by Ron Chernow, and he hasn’t let me down.
I grew up in the US, so a lot of what the book covers is second hand/classroom information for me, but Ron Chernow included a lot of good points and new facts about George Washington and his life.
I really like how Chernow didn’t try to glorify Washington, but he also didn’t try to beat Washington down. All Chernow did was make Washington more human for modern day people.
One thing that I thought was interesting - and that wasn’t taught in classrooms - is that Washington suffered with a form of anthrax, which is a little scary.
It was a really well done book, and I honestly can wait to read more of Ron Chernow’s books. ( )
  historybookreads | Jul 26, 2021 |
Excellent. ( )
  AngelClaw | Jul 23, 2021 |
Es mostren 1-5 de 70 (següent | mostra-les totes)
At 900-odd densely packed pages, “Washington” can be arid at times. But it’s also deeply rewarding as a whole, and it does genuinely amplify and recast our perceptions of Washington’s importance.
 

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Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.
- Abigail Adams, speaking of George Washington after his death
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(Prelude) 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.
The crowded career of George Washington afforded him little leisure to indulge his vanity or gratify his curiosity by conducting genealogical research into his family.
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In "Washington : a Life" celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation, dashing forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man, and revealing an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people.

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