I finished reading Chernow’s entertaining and enlightening biography of George Washington (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010, 904 pages) last night. A throughly researched and thoroughly entertaining look at the life of our first President. Relying heavily on Washington’s own correspondence and papers Chernow presents an engaging portrait of President Washington.
Highly favorable to Washington, Chernow is not afraid to point out the inconsistencies and foibles of our first President. Particularly interesting is Washington’s vacillation regarding slavery. EVen though he freed slaves he owned at his death, up till his death he did everything possible to keep slaves in his possession. Runaway slaves were sought with persistence. Chernow also presents Washington as consumed with how he would be remembered by history. At numerous points along the way Washington ordered his aides to carefully and meticulously keep and organize his correspondence and his papers. And Washington kept volumes of paper. Washington kept a rather detailed daily journal of his activities as well as copies of letters he sent and letters he received. Washington’s policy toward native Americans was also conflicted. It is as though he didn’t quite know what to do with those who lived here when white settlers arrived. Chernow presents evidence of Washington’s powerful attraction to members of the opposite sex. While not suggesting that Washington carried on a physical affair other women, at least two women, besides Martha, captured Washington’s eye and heart Sally Fairfax- a married woman; and Elizabeth Powell, also a married woman. Chernow treats these relationships carefully and honestly without reading too much or too little into the relationships.
Though having no biological children of his own he was very much a family man. When he married Martha she had two children by her deceased husband. These children and their children, as well as various nieces and nephews became Washington’s extended family. Though Washington’s father died when he was young Washington never developed a close bond with his mother. She lived long enough to see her son named commander of the army of the Continental Congress and be elected as the first President of the United States. However, none of the extant correspnondence between mother and son display any affection or warmth.
Washington very much wanted to be remembered as the designer and owner of Mt. Vernon, a large estate made up of several farms. However, because of personal financial mismanagement and long extended absences (over 8 years as commander of the army and another 8 years as President) his homestead never quite measured up to his dreams.
According to Chernow Washington’s most enduring contributions to our country were made as the first President. His first Cabinet, containing Jefferson, Hamilton, Edmund Randolph and others was one of the most gifted groups of leaders to have ever held executive offices in government. Though the clashing personalities and political winds forced changes to that group, WAshington exhibited a great deal of wisdom and political acumen in holding such a group together and molding an executive department that worked. Washington’s dealings with congress is still the standard by which president’s are measured; for example, the State of the Union Address was initiated by Washington as was the invoking of executive privilege.
Chernow presents a balanced and readable portrait of the human George Washington which makes his book a valuable addition to any library of American history.