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George Washington: A Life

April 5, 2017

Like so many others, I’ve become quite concerned lately about the increased political divide in the United States, especially because it seems to influence and form social and cultural divides as well. To try to understand—and bridge the gap between—my more conservative friends and family, I decided to spend time learning about what I kept hearing was the crux of our political divide: states’ rights vs. federalism. And being a history and book nerd, I started by reading about the Founding Fathers.

That led to my current reading project of presidential biographies. Not surprisingly for a blogger who posts so erratically and seldom, I took a year and change to make my way through Ron Chernow’s 900-page Washington: A Life. Yet I so enjoyed what I learned about our first president that I added Joseph J. Ellis’s His Excellency George Washington for good measure. I highly recommend both of these books, Chernow’s for its thoroughness and completeness, and Ellis’s especially for the writing. (See my next post for my review of Ellis’s excellent, and decidedly shorter, biography.)

When I asked a docent at the National Constitution Center several years ago to recommend a good Washington biography, he said to try Ron Chernow’s. Thus my project began, and I’m now a big fan of GW (as I affectionately call him, even though it always sounds like I’m talking about the bridge over the Hudson). Chernow thankfully (because it’s what I was hoping for) removes the mythologizing and hagiography that has always surrounded GW, instead rendering him as a reticent, principled, ambitious man who nevertheless used all his talents to set a most righteous and powerful example of leadership for a new country that would not have survived without him.

I made so many notes that I’d love to share with you about GW and his character, as portrayed by Chernow—trivial but interesting facts (e.g., he was the only president to lead an army while serving as president, when he led 13,000 soldiers to western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion), personal notes that help us understand his humanity (e.g., he married Martha for practical reasons, even though his heart was tied to his friend’s wife)—yet below are ones I found most impressive about him.

Leading Soldiers, Leading a Nation

GW loved order, and as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he demanded it of his officers and soldiers. He asked much of them, but fought all kinds of administrative battles for them, too. He led by example in bravery, loyalty, leadership, and respect. This defining culture of the Continental Army molded the character of the new country they fought for, “preventing the Revolution from taking a bloodthirsty or despotic turn,” as the French Revolution did later.

No doubt because of his frustrating experience of leading an army of ragtag soldiers mixed with independent (states’) militias without anywhere near enough materials (guns, ammunition, supplies, horses, etc.) and without much if any money from the newly formed Congress to pay his officers and soldiers, GW became a leading proponent of a strong federal government (but he wouldn’t call himself a Federalist). He wanted the new nation to form an executive branch that could take charge of paying its creditors, develop a national currency, and collect revenue from states. He also wanted some organized regulation for trade among the states and with other nations, and he fought for the development of a national military and navy.

Obviously, because he was the first president, he established a number of precedents for the U.S. presidency. Many of these stand to this day:

  • Advice and consent from the executive branch would be written rather than in person (his first use of that executive action didn’t go well when he appeared in the Senate chambers).
  • He assumed the role of chief actor for the United States in foreign affairs.
  • He interpreted the Constitution’s mandate that the executive branch provide information to Congress about the state of the Union, which he did in a formal address to that body, creating the State of the Union Address, and including the presence of leading figures of all three branches of government when his cabinet and the Supreme Court Justice came along.
  • The wrangling between the executive branch and Congress over Indian affairs led to a ruling from his cabinet that became executive privilege, or the decision on what secret and confidential materials should be shared with the legislative branch.

As far as Chernow’s writing, I’m pleased to say that I found few awkwardnesses or errors (I’m a manuscript editor by trade). His writing is serviceable and intelligent, smart but not overwhelmingly so, with clear language, no flaunting or high verbiage; the flow is good, and the structure really sound. But there’s no sparkle, no distinction to the writing. I enjoyed his habit of mixing facts with his own supposition and speculation, for instance, when he describes an event in GW’s youth that might have been an early indication of his later, famous character. And his attention to the more personal details of GW’s life—his friendships, his love of dancing and flirting, his dentures, his wardrobe and appearance—work very well toward his stated goal: “Readers, instead of a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation for this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.”

Reader, I did.

 

 

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