Washington, by Ron Chernow – great scholarship, a good read, significant light

October 28, 2010

Welcome, Book Tourists!  This is the last stop on a virtual book tour for Ron Chernow’s biography, Washington.

Virtual cocktails afterward, I hope.  Then sit down and read the book.

In a piece of great fortune for me, six years ago I spent a week at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia, through the good graces of the Bill of Rights Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities, studying George Washington’s role in the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

Cover of Ron Chernow's book, Washington

Washington, by Ron Chernow. Penguin Press, 2010; 906 pages, $40.00

My academic interest leaned more toward James Madison’s role.  I thought then, and I still think, that Madison deserves a good, popular biography to complement the great recent work of others on the American Revolution and post-revolutionary organization of the nation.  We’ve had recent books by Edmund Morris, Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacs  and others on Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, the “founding brothers,” Hamilton and Washington.   But for Garry Wills’ short and crabby assessment of Madison’s presidency, I am unaware of a good, popularly-readable Madison book.    As a professional journalist, as a civil libertarian, as a lawyer and occasional investigator, my studies of the era favored Franklin, Jefferson and Madison.  George Washington took the center stage, in my conception of events, while those working around him and in the wings frantically worked to put on the production that made America and allowed Washington to play the role of a hero, the face of the “Father of His Country” role — while the truth was that such success really did have many fathers.

For most history purposes in elementary and secondary schools, for most of the past 200 years, Washington is the easy center of attention, and I suspected a different story.  Jefferson wrote better, and more thoughtfully, did he not?  Madison’s legislative work in Virginia alone shone above Washington’s.  Washington had military experience, and he managed to cling on through the revolution — but his role as president was often more as a referee between the great creative forces driven by Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson.

What I hoped to find at the Mount Vernon meetings were sources to reveal the true role of James Madison — maybe I could get the story together and write it myself.

Simply put, I was not prepared to confront the genius of Washington, nor did I appreciate the depth of his involvement in so many areas where our common understanding of history simply gave Washington the title of hero, but without telling much of the backstory.

I looked for the evidence of Madison’s genius.  What I found was the overwhelming evidence of Washington’s genius, too.

Washington’s economic genius now displays proudly at Mount Vernon, with the reconstruction of his 16-sided barn for wheat thrashing, and with the reconstruction of the distillery which made the man who put down the Whiskey Rebellion, ironically, the leading distiller of whiskey in America shortly before his death.  I learned that Washington got out of tobacco a decade before the revolution, because he didn’t like the economics of sending a crop to agents he did not fully trust in London, for sales in markets whose prices he could not track, for sales to purchasers he could not see.  Instead, he took his business into wheat, a commodity much in demand since most other farmers locally grew tobacco.  Washington became a leading wheat producer, and grew richer as a result of that and other similar decisions of clear-thinking economics.  By the end of his life, he was producing a surplus of wheat — which excited his Scotland-born farm foreman, who had a recipe for whiskey.

Washington was not merely the frontman for the convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  It became clear to me that he was a driving force, introducing Madison to Hamilton, and mentoring both in their work to get the convention approved, and then to get the Constitution written and ratified.   Washington had financial interests in seeing a great, united nation out of the 13 colonies:  He had land in the Ohio River Valley to sell, to get rich, if only there were an authority to made transportation into the valley hospitable to settlers, and transportation out to let those settler farmers get rich from their produce.   Washington’s vision, I learned, was much greater than I had understood.

Ron Chernow’s thick biography of Alexander Hamilton excited historians in 2004.  As studies of Jefferson lead to studies of Madison, and vice-versa, so do studies of Hamilton inevitably lead to studies of Washington.  We are fortunate that Chernow wrote the thick biography of Washington, the first great study of the man for the 21st century.

Chernow’s Washington, A Life (2010, Penguin Press, 906 pages) is every bit the great study of Washington we need and can use.  My bias as a teacher of high school students leans toward usefulness in the classroom — a higher standard than most imagine, since, for a high school classroom, a book must be eminently readable as well as accurate and clear.

Chernow had me at the Prelude.  In a brisk five pages he tells the story of Gilbert Stuart, an often-economically-bereft artist who saw fortune in Washington’s election.  Stuart arranged to get the great man to sit for a portrait — Washington did not like it — but Stuart never finished Washington’s commission in Washington’s life.  Instead, Stuart used the portrait to copy, for others.    Stuart’s fortune came not from Washington, but from the vast throng of Washington admirers who would pay handsomely for an image of the man.  It’s a well-told story, and a great introduction to the lionizing of Washington and his image, the reality of the man who sat for the portrait, and the way history has treated the man and the myth.  [Courtesy of the New York Times, you may read the Prelude, here.]

Readers of McCullough’s 1776 know of some of Washington’s genius at war, and some of his attention to details of making things work right — whether it be the way latrines were dug so an army could relieve itself and avoid disease, or the the exact tints of the color of green paint applied to the massive dining room he had added to the house at Mount Vernon.  McCullough’s book is a taste, a sampling of the work Chernow has.  One may compare Chernow’s story-telling ability to McCullough’s, and Chernow may suffer a bit.  For Washington, the drama is so often in the details, however — and details we have, galore.

Is it too much detail?  For the life of another, it may be.  Not for Washington.  Chernow is able to make readable even the details.  One may open this book at any page, start with a paragraph, and learn something about Washington — most often, learning something one did not know precisely before.  Chernow relied on the massive project at the University of Virginia to publish all the papers of Washington, collected from various sources.  Washington had not been quite so assiduous as Jefferson in making copies of everything he wrote for posterity, though much he was an assiduous diarist and taker of notes.  No biographer before had the advantage of the catalogueing done at Virginia, nor perhaps of the scope of the material there.

For this reason alone, this book should be read.

Chernow’s portrait is painstaking.  What emerges in the end is a George Washington whose vanity would be quirky and irksome in others, but necessary to the building of the image history graces to him, as the standard-bearer for the founders of the nation, truly the Father of His Country.  The vanities quickly become clear as careful consideration by a man who understood, especially as president, that each move he made would be a precedent for those who would follow, he hoped.   One example:  Washington’s work on the bank bill of 1791, made possible as we know by the dinner at Jefferson’s where Hamilton and Madison struck the bargain that sited the District of Columbia on the Potomac, and set up the finances that would make the nation successful in business and international relations over the next 200 years.

Though he had sat through every session of the Constitutional Convention, Washington did not pretend to expertise in constitutional nuances — he nce wrote that he had ‘had as little to do with lawyers as any man of my age” — and engaged in much hand-wringing over the bank bill.  He would be forced to issue a black and white opinion that would alienate some, gratify others, and irrevocably shape the future government.  He called in Madison, supremely well versed in the Constitution, for a series of quiet, confidential talks.  “The constitutionality of the nation bank was a question on which his mind was greatly perplexed,” Madison would recall, noting that Washington was already biased in favor of a national bank and “a liberal construction of the national powers.”  On the other hand, Washington was shaken by uncompromising verdicts from Randolph and Jefferson and asked Madison, as a precaution, to draft a veto message for the bank bill.

When Washington turned to Hamilton, he made plain that, unless he could vanquish the arguments of Randolph and Jefferson, he planned to veto the bank bill, telling him that he wished to “be fully possessed of the arguments for and against the measure before I express any opinion of my own.”  By this point Washington knew the vigor of Hamilton’s mind and his extraordinary knack for legal argument.  In little more than a week, Hamilton, in a superhuman burst of energy, produced more than thirteen thousand words that buried his opponents beneath an avalanche of arguments.  His exegesis of the “necessary and proper” clause not only made way for a central bank but would enable the federal government to respond to emergencies throughout American history.  Hamilton interpreted the “necessary and proper” clause to mean that “every power vested in a government is in its nature sovereign and includes, by force of the term, a right to employ all the means requisite and fairly applicable to the ends of such power.”  In other words, the Constitution gave the federal government not only the powers explicitly enumerated but also a series of unstated or “implied powers” indispensable to attain those ends.  (circa page 649)

Two paragraphs, easily read without seriously taxing the vocabulary of an SAT-studying high school junior.  They clearly detail Washington’s care in analyzing all sides of an issue.  They reveal Washington’s ability to harness the good work of men of greatly differing viewpoints, to the enlightenment of Washington and benefit of the nation — which benefit likely would not have occurred had another man been in Washington’s place (can you imagine anyone else mediating Madison and Hamilton — and keeping them both as friends?).  Chernow gracefully slips from telling a good story to providing scholarly details (I have omitted footnotes here), but not in an eye-glazing fashion — weaving the scholarship into a story fantastic enough that it would not sell for fiction, as Twain warned because it does not stick to the probabilities.

A few years ago a student offered what I considered a great insight.  We were comparing the American Revolution to the French Revolution; naturally, considering the Reign of Terror and the rise of the dictatorial Emperor Napoleon, students wondered where the French went wrong, and where the Americans got luck and went right.  Israel Pena summed it up neatly:  “The French didn’t have George Washington.  Americans came out of their revolution with George Washington; France came out of their revolution with Napoleon.”

Napoleon would have done well to have studied George Washington.

It is reported that when King George III learned that Gen. George Washington had, at the end of the American Revolution and the peace treaty negotiations, resigned his commission to the Continental Congress, the news was met with disbelief.  Washington improbably held together a ragamuffin mob of an army, disciplined them into a fighting force, and through evasion tactics, inspiration and sheer luck, and great aid from the King of France and the French Navy, defeated Great Britain in a war where no one, probably  including Washington had thought it possible to do so.  Many Europeans expected Washington would assume the crown of America and have himself declared king.

Instead, following the story of his Roman hero, Cincinnatus, Washington declined the power, deferring to civilian and more democratic rule, sublimating military might and prowess to the greater powers of reason.  (Washington, following Cincinnatus again, bowed out after two terms in the presidency — the power of story and early education over the fate of a nation.)

King George said he didn’t believe the news.  “But if it is true, [Washington] is the greatest man who ever lived.”

Without unnecessary shine, Ron Chernow has written more than 800 pages of the brief for the case proving King George’s judgment.  In these times, when people claim to wish to follow Washington and the Constitution, we would do well to study what Washington said, wrote and did, and how he came to create the Constitution and the nation it frames.

Note: My review copy did not include an index. The book, Washington covers the man as an encyclopedia.  For the sake of high school teachers and researchers, I hope an index comes with the published text.

More, and resources; other reviews:

Other stops on the virtual book tour:


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