When I had this idea to read a book about every President of the United States, I came up with a few personal ground rules. First, I would read a book by or about each President. Second, I would read them in chronological order, according to the electoral succession of power. Third, when pinning down which book to read, I would limit myself to one-volume works. Many notable presidential biographies are multi-volume epics, such as Edmund Morris three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Finally, I would search for works of distinction, choosing books that are award-winning and recognized as authoritative.
Keeping those ground rules in mind, I knew that we’ve only had forty-four Presidents. Over the last few years, I’ve been reading fifty or more books per year, and thus imagined that with only forty-four presidential books to read, completing this quest in a year would be achievable. Of course, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the task before me.
Back in November, Barnes & Noble sent me a pre-holiday enticement, a 20% discount coupon for one item in their store, in addition to my B&N member discount. I can’t resist a bargain, so I searched online for an authoritative single volume biography of our first President, George Washington. After some research, I set my sites on Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, a well-regarded bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner.
When I located Chernow’s book on the shelves at B&N, my jaw dropped. It is an eight hundred page book, an impressive bound stack of dead tree. As I stood wondering what I had committed myself to, my eyes kept wandering over to Richard Ellis’s more manageable three hundred page biography His Excellency. I also wondered whether a 30% discount was worth it, when compared to the enormous medical bills I would face after lugging around this behemoth of a book. On my Kindle, it would weigh nothing, but the paperback edition of Chernow’s opus weighs a hefty 2.4 pounds.
My inveterate lazy streak was telling me to go for the shorter Ellis book, but my better instincts won out. I bought Chernow’s book, because after all this was George Washington, a big-deal President. And what a book! It is a captivating and detailed portrait of our first President, a riveting account of his times, the birth pangs of American independence from the British Empire. Douglas Brinkley calls it “Nothing short of phenomenal,” to which I say “Word!”
To answer the inevitable first question, no, Washington did not chop down a cherry tree, a fanciful anecdote worn out by repetition. Chernow’s book spends very little time on his early life. I presume there isn’t a lot of documentation for his childhood, perhaps explaining the longevity of the aforementioned folk tale. Washington did, however, chop down two cherry trees in his lifelong effort to improve his estate, Mt. Vernon.
And, no, Washington did not have wooden teeth. His choppers were made of ivory. Reading about his dental woes, I was overcome by an insistent urge to vigorously floss my teeth. At the time he became President, poor George had but one natural tooth painfully anchoring a full set of dentures with wire and springs. If Washington’s unsmiling visage on the dollar bill looks stiff and pained, it is for a good reason: the man’s face hurt!
Washington’s story, and in fact the story of our country, begins with the French and Indian war. At the time, Washington was a citizen of the Empire, a colonial soldier attached to Virginia’s regiments under orders from the British Crown. Washington was no wide-eyed rebel, he was an up and coming citizen of the crown’s most profitable colony, eager to rise up in the ranks of the military. But as a colonial, there was only so far he was able to rise through the ranks of British military service. Class prejudice and disdain for colonials prevented him from rising to lead British regulars. His achievements, while acknowledged, were never properly rewarded. His advice was patronizingly listened to but rarely followed, to the detriment of the British military grandees that he was subordinate to in rank, but not in intellect or skill.
The pivotal moment for Washington occurred on May 27, 1754, when Washington led a contingent of soldiers, in an alliance of convenience with a band of Mingo Indians, in an infamous fight against the French. At the time, tension between the British and French was high, both countries laying claim to trading rights in the Ohio Territory. A contingent of French soldiers led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville came into conflict with British forces under Washington. The true nature of what happened is mired in controversy, but at the end of the battle, the French had been soundly defeated, and Jumonville killed. According to the French, Washington’s troops ambushed them, assassinationg Jumoville. Washington maintained that the French fired first. The truth as is often the case remains clouded in the fog of war.
The death of Jumonville was such an affront to French sensibilities that the incident sparked the formal declaration of war between the French and British, called the French and Indian War in United States, or more generally the Seven Years War. Ultimately the British were victorious, but the British had incurred a mountain of debt defeating their French foes in the Americas. Rather unjustly, they chose to retire this debt on the backs of the American colonial provincials, raising import duties on products delivered to the colonies. With export prices controlled by the Crown, American farmers and merchants were squeezed by low prices for their export goods and high prices for needed goods from England. Dissatisfaction with the British quickly grew to open revolt, most notoriously with the Boston Tea Party.
When we speak of Washington as the Father of the Country, we can point to a the Jumonville incident as the singular moment that led to the birth of our country. Washington was there from the beginning, and from that moment on his course forward to lead our country was determined. It is remarkable to think what might have happened had Jumonville not been killed. Would we still be subjects of the Crown?
Later, Washington’s experience leading the Continental Army foreshadowed many of the political strains that arose during the formation of our country, led to the Civil War, and even affect us to this day. In his time as general and commander-in-chief, the tension between sovereign states and a strong central governing authority was a topic of much public debate, and a source of anxiety for Washington. The story of Washington’s winter at Valley Forge was an outcome of this political tension. Washington and his men suffered through a miserable winter not because of deprivations from the British. Rather, as Chernow deftly explains, the source of their de because the states were stingy in their support for the army. Washington believed that without a central, unifying federal government to rally support for the army and enforce taxation, the army would continue to suffer. He admired and envied the richly equipped British soldiers, who used their wealth to steer public opinion. On the other hand, the states had a deep-rooted fear of any central governing authority. Republicans like Thomas Jefferson saw a strong central government of any sort as a prelude to monarchical tyranny. The question of slavery simmered with these tensions as early as the revolution, eventually boiling over into the Civil War. And we see ripple effects of that conflict today, even in our last election, where the Old South voted against Barack Obama, a black man, and a believer in a robust central government.
Washington is such an iconic figure in American history, more myth than man. Chernow’s writing disposes of the mythology, and humanizes our first President in touching ways. Here is a man who rose from humble beginnings to greatness, a conquering general who won his country’s freedom from tyranny, and became the first democratically elected leader of the Republic. Yet, despite all his success Washington endured an ever contentious relationship with his mother, Mary Ball Washington. To put it bluntly, she was a narcissistic pain in the ass. At the height of his power as President, not a word of praise or expression of pride crossed his mother’s lips; instead, she had nothing but complaints about her son leaving her alone without enough money, despite his remarkable generosity towards her over many years. She went as far as trying to petition the Virginia legislature for a special pension for herself, falsely accusing her son of leaving her destitute. Chernow’s Washington is no God among men, but a mere mortal suffering the indignities and slights we all suffer, including an impossible mother. Chernow also writes how in his later years, Washington always took note of how many beautiful women were in attendance at functions he attended, another humanizing portrait of the man, longing for his younger days.
The word patriot is tossed about a lot these days, with everyone from Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, and Ted Nugent trying the title on for size, but for them the title is wholly inappropriate. John Kerry, John McCain, and George H.W. Bush have a somewhat more legitimate claim to the title, because of their war record and public service. But reading Washington: A Life, I realized how rare a true patriot really is, and Washington certainly fits the bill, practically defining the term. It’s easy to be cynical about the state of American politic life today, but if you want to reinvigorate your sense of patriotism and belief in the American ideal, Chernow’s book is a good place to start.
P.S. Look for a review soon of David McCullough’s John Adams.