Washington's Life as it really was....or was it?
Washington was a stoic figure and obsessive with curating his own legacy. This has made it difficult for biographers to reveal the real man behind the legend. Chernow gets much right, but did he get it all?
Washington occupied a place in early American history that was unique even among the founding fathers. He was a bona fide celebrity. No one compared to his level of fame in the years during and after the American Revolution, with perhaps the exception of Benjamin Franklin.
This fame was well understood by Washington and those around him. A man beset with many insecurities, he was obsessed with carefully curating his public image during life and his legacy after death. He was largely successful in this, leading to a man more known as a myth of near godly proportions than a flawed and imperfect man.
In Chernow’s comprehensive biography, “Washington: A Life”, he seeks to pull back the veil and cut through the common conceptions to look at Washington as he really was. Unlike some other biographies, this does not focus on a specific time of Washington’s life, but covers from his early childhood till his death.
Since Washington was such a pivotal figure as the “Father of his Country”, the biography is an excellent walk through early American history. The interactions of Washington and many of the other founding fathers give insight to their lives as well as his. Stories we saw only as brief glimpses in our history textbooks come alive as we see them from the perspective of a man who lived through them all.
The book also gives excellent understanding of the position of the President, as it was Washington who literally wrote the playbook on who and how an American President should act, his authority, and many traditions.
This is the second Chernow biography I have read, the other being “Titan“, about John D. Rockefeller Sr. As an Evangelical Christian, I once again felt that Chernow was writing on an area he doesn’t comprehend when trying to explore and understand the depth and role of Washington’s faith. He almost seems to minimize it’s role, talking about how the picture of Washington praying at Valley Forge is just a legend and how he isolated himself from religious affiliation. I do not know Chernow’s own religious leanings, but it seems that he discredits the role Faith holds in the life of his subjects. I suspect this is simply due to a lack of personal understanding of the sustaining and uplifting power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When studying men who were devout Christians, this is a serious weakness for a biographer, to the point that I may shy away from Chernow’s other works for a while.
Where the book does do well is to look at many of Washington’s failures as well as strengths. As a study on leadership, we can see clearly where he excelled and where he lacked. He was an imperfect man who did great things mainly through his resolve and quiet determination more than his intellect and eloquence. He matured over the years, putting aside youthful ambition and becoming content with allowing life to take its natural course. One area he never seemed to conquer was his finances, struggling always to reign in spending and stay out of debt. The impact of all of these is clear throughout his life.
This book is weighty. Literally. It is over 900 pages, or 40+ hours on Audiobook, and weighs nearly three pounds. Don’t expect a quick read over a long weekend. You must be dedicated to the study of history and have respect for the man in order to enjoy the length of this text. If this is your first foray in to the subject you may do better to read a shorter version that is more easily digested.
However, if you want an exhaustive study that will give you a nuanced view that will allow you to form your own understanding of George Washington, “Washington: A Life” is highly recommended.