Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow, Penguin Press, New York, 2010, $40
Once a dedicated biographer of money men, Ron Chernow now sees himself as a modern Pygmalion: Like the hero of Greek myth, the author has set out to transform a marble image—the statuesque figure of George Washington—into a flesh-and-blood human being.
The figure Chernow presents is awesome, yes, but also a man who loved, flirted, penny-pinched, punished and toiled with the evils of slavery. Yet the author never wholly besmirches the valiant image of Washington that has radiated across the centuries. In fact, as he stresses throughout, Washington radiated glory and was always courageous in battle. Bullets seemed miraculously to fly by him when under fire.
This trait first revealed itself in the French and Indian War, when the young Washington led green troops into the bush for a series of short and bloody encounters. “He had a natural toughness and never seemed to gag at bloodshed,” writes Chernow, recounting the battle of Fort Necessity in what is now Pennsylvania. “A born soldier, he was curiously at home with bullets whizzing about him.”
Yet Chernow also makes his hero curiously human in battle. Washington could be distracted by such trivialities as the condescension of British officers early in his career or by his renovations at Mount Vernon during the Revolutionary War. He could forgive loyal underlings who underperformed and was often too tolerant of rival officers who plotted against him. He could weep for fallen comrades and unleash a hell-born fury at cowardly soldiers, as he did at Kips Bay in Manhattan in 1776.
As a strategist Washington was masterful at Princeton, but Chernow also points out that Washington almost blew the entire revolution by his oversights at Brooklyn Heights just a few months earlier.
Chernow respectfully relates Washington’s well-deserved reputation for even-handed dignity as president. But again we see his human side as he rages against the perceived betrayals of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and wrestles with the evils of slavery even as his own slave workforce balloons. We see his practised restraint as the party system developed and the young republic wrestled with taxation, relations with European states, slavery and banking.
We also see the private Washington, a man with no children of his own who enjoyed paternal relationships with a host of surrogates, in both his wife’s offspring and younger soldiers. And among close friends he could count his wife, Martha, for the author concludes theirs was a marriage of fondness rather than passion.
In Washington, Chernow has done as good a job as he did with his magnificent 2004 biography Hamilton, even if he didn’t quite end up with as good a book. The new book is a welcome addition to the canon of the first president, but Hamilton was something special, a rollicking tale about a heroic and spectacularly flawed man.