I know it’s still early in the game, but George Washington might be my favorite President. I finished reading Washington: A Life last night and found that I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was because my expectations were fairly low, as I expected him to be moderately boring, but it kept surprising me at how great it was.
I completely enjoyed reading Ron Chernow’s book, Washington: A Life. The book did not simply focus on Washington’s presidency, but rather (as one can assume from the title) his life from birth until death. At more than 900 pages, this book was a doozy to carry around, but it because evident as Chernow delved into Washington’s life why it necessitated being so long to be a comprehensive study. I felt like Chernow allocated an appropriate page space to each given topic, breaking his life into six main subcategories: Washington as a frontiersman, planter, general, statesman, president, and closing at his death and becoming history’s greatest legend. It was interesting to see how Washington’s life unfolded, filling in as much of the gray area as possible from what we know of his mother (a cold and distant woman who Washington could feel only respect as opposed to filial love), father (who died when he was young), and documents. Knowing of Washington’s extensive military career, I was worried that I would get bogged down reading about battles, triumphs and defeats, and lots in the way of military jargon, and while his career as a general is heavily focused on, it is perfectly readable (and not in the least bit boring) to a civilian with no interest in military history. The rest of the book followed a similar pattern, mixing story telling and dramatic flare with cold hard evidence. Despite my fear of being bored to tears, I found that I was actually entertained, and certainly the quips, stories, and “setting-straights” that Chernow does added to my interest (surely those around me got progressively annoyed with my “Did you know…?”s !). After finishing, it was evident why Washington: A Life is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize. It was thorough without being tedious, quote- and document-laden without being unreadable, positive without being ‘fan-boyish’, and accurate without being biased. Maybe what I loved the most, though, was that Chernow continually reminded the reader that Washington was human. He showed how he related to others and how others related to him. It wasn’t always great (who knew that even politicians 200+ years ago hated each other), but it did convey what a magnificent character Washington was. I would clearly recommend this read to anyone interested in getting an insight into our first American President and one of the finest generals in military history, or anyone simply looking for a well-researched history read.
George Washington was a much different man that I imagined him based on the 13 years of public schooling I had. He is one of the few that I felt I knew a lot about because every February before we got his birthday off from school, we’d always cover his basics.
- Chopped down a cherry tree and did not tell a lie. Check
- Fought in the Revolution. Check
- First President. Check
- Wooden teeth. Check
- Quarter and One Dollar Bill. Check
I didn’t realize that a good portion of what I (thought) I knew was fairly (or wholly) inaccurate, and I didn’t actually know much of anything about this fellow. First of all, his teeth were made of elephant and walrus ivory (but often confused with wood because of the striations, and also stained nearly black from port wine), he never wore a wig (as I covered in the last post), the whole cherry tree business is bogus, etc etc etc. I assumed that he was probably super well educated because he was rich, though his lack of education was something he was always self-conscious of (and a reason that many of his political colleagues thought less of him), and in fact, he learned primarily from his father and brother and what he taught himself. Basically, he and the other founding fathers (John Adams [despite being his Vice President], John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, etc) all hated each other. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was quite fond of Washington, and Alexander Hamilton was a total fan-boy!
A few things about Washington that I really was fond of:
- He was an early abolitionist (sort of). “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees” (pg 490 in Chernow, but written by Washington in a letter to John Francis Mercer in Sept 1797). Though he was firm with his slaves and was insistent that they were better off with him than free, he also allowed them many opportunities that one doesn’t typically associate with slave-owners. For example, he allowed many of his slaves to hunt and own firearms (he must have been so sure they wouldn’t revolt), and then he would allow them to go to the market on Saturdays and sell their meat, and often he would buy it. When his slaves would get older or become hurt or ill, his personal doctor took care of them, and if they were unable to continue their regular work, he found other trades for them to learn that would not be so strenuous on them.
- His character is really apparent in his resignation speech from the military, as well as how his former troops responded to him. “When Washington strode into their midst in his familiar blue and buff uniform, they all rose in respect…Raising his glass with a shaking hand, Washington began to speak, his voice breaking with emotion: ‘With a heart filled with love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.’ The officers, moved, lifted their glasses and drank in silence. Tears welled up in Washington’s eyes… ‘I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’” (page 452). AND THEY DID! Wow.
- He raised a fair share of kids that weren’t his own. After he and Martha wed, he raised her two kids (Jacky and Patsy), which had to be exceptionally difficult as Jacky was supposedly quite the trouble-maker, and Patsy was quite ill. He also raised two of Jacky’s kids after he died (Nelly and Washy), and then took countless others into his home because their parents weren’t able to raise them. Of course, Americans found that George himself was unable (?) to have children reassuring because it implied that the presidency would not become a role similar to that of the king, who merely passed the crown on to his son. It also gave him the nickname “Father of his Country” since he wasn’t father to anyone else.
- He was renowned for being a gracious host and generous to anyone passing by, even going so far as to keeping clothing around his house so if visitors stayed overnight, they would have fresh clothing. Martha was apparently the same way (and a total hottie)!
Other things I didn’t know:
- He had no desire at all to be President and encouraged people to vote against him. “He appears to be greatly against going into public life again, please in excuse for himself his love of retirement and his advanced age.” (547, originally in a letter from Donald to Jefferson).
- He can give credit to a lot of his successes in life to the deaths of those closest to him. For example, when his father died, he inherited land, money and slaves (giving him opportunities he didn’t have before). When his brother died, he took his post as a general in the army (though had no aspirations to be in the army during his brother’s life). When his brother’s wife and son died, he got Mount Vernon. If Patsy had lived, he never would have been able to fill his presidential duties and travel around the country. So on and so forth.
- He summed up his political style as, “Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness.” It was also stated that he “consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely.” I think we could use more rational thinker in office today.
Anyhow, I know this was a long one (but so was the book, damn it!) and I really feel like I have a lot more to say on the topic. If you ever have a question on Washington, I may be a new expert.
On to number 2: John Adams