Tuesday, October 26, 2010

George Washington Gets the Chernow Treatment

Ron Chernow, the award-winning biographer of John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton, turns his attention to the greatest, and in some ways, the most elusive, figure in American history: George Washington. With Washington: A Life, Chernow attempts to shatter the image of the "wooden, unemotional man" most Americans have in their minds when it comes to George Washington. In its place, Chernow paints America's preeminent Founding Father as a dynamic, vibrant, and at-the-time wildly popular leader who was (in every way) larger than life and truly indispensable to early American history.

George Washington is not an easy person to write about. He kept much of himself private, remaining aloof quite often. Martha destroyed much of their correspondence upon his death, thus adding another security layer to Washington's privacy. But Chernow had an advantage that many of Washington's previous biographers did not. Since the late 1960s, the University of Virginia began to publish a new edition of Washington's papers, based on 135,000 documents gathered from around the world. Chernow calls this collection a "veritable feast of scholarship," and it was a feast not available to Douglas Southall Freeman and other notable biographers of Washington.

That Washington has been such a difficult and elusive subject for biographers is something Chernow conveys masterfully in his prelude, when he points out that Washington was also not the easiest person to paint. I found the introductory story about Gilbert Stuart to be a great "lead in" to the biography, as it truly set the stage for the daunting challenge of trying to understand Washington.

George H.W. Bush, the nation's forty-first President, once famously remarked: "Don't put me on the couch!" It was a reference to the increasingly popular tendency of 1990s talk shows to thoroughly unmask and psycho-analyze public figures. A man of his time, Bush was clearly uncomfortable with such brightly illuminated, often highly subjective analysis - an analysis that respected few, if any boundaries, as it probed deep into one's private life, personal background, religious views, family upbringing, etc. In the Age of Oprah and Dr. Phil, this has become the norm, and it's a world most unwelcome by people like George H.W. Bush - and, were he alive today, George Washington.

In his day, Washington went to great lengths to preserve some semblance of decorum and privacy. To James Madison, Washington wrote that he wished to avoid "too free an intercourse and too much familiarity." This aspect of Washington is something Chernow explores in great detail in his biography, including how Washington, as President, cultivated a tightly scripted and highly effective persona. Yet even in this rigidly planned and enforced context, the personal side would occasionally come through. Chernow writes of Washington's fondness for female company and how he clearly relished the attention he received from women admirers.

Chernow also dissects Washington's personality. In fact, it was revelations concerning Washington's personality that led Chernow to take on this project. While working on his previous biography on Alexander Hamilton, Chernow came across letters by Hamilton describing Washington as "moody, irritable, and temperamental." It was a side of Washington that Chernow knew he had to explore more. And the result is this massively researched work.

Chernow sticks to the facts when dealing with his subject. In the case of Washington's religious faith, for instance, Chernow doesn't grind any axes or throw in with any particular camp to advance a personal or cultural agenda. He points out (correctly) that Washington was, in no way, the kind of Deist who sees God as a "watchmaker" who winds up the world and lets it run according to "natural laws" with little to no intervention. In Washington's mind, God was decisively interventionist, with (writes Chernow of Washington's view) "a keen interest in North American politics." One need only look to Washington's First Inaugural Address as evidence of this.

On the other hand, Chernow acknowledges that, while Washington was regarded by many of his peers as "a sincere believer in the Christian faith," the man himself did not "directly affirm the deity of Jesus Christ." Some historians, such as Peter Lillback, would dispute that last statement, arguing that Washington's affiliation with the Anglican (and later Episcopal) Church constituted an affirmation on his part of Jesus' deity. That may be true, but it's also true that Washington wrote and spoke often of Providence, and rarely did so of Jesus.

Chernow's portrait of Washington includes a detailed and comprehensive look at his relationship with his mother, his infatuation with Sally Fairfax, his exploits in the French and Indian War, his generalship in the Revolutionary War, critical presence at the Constitutional Convention (in which he was far more than the figurehead many Americans think of), and of course his presidency. In 817 pages, Chernow succeeds in bringing Washington to life.


Heather J. @ TLC Books said...

It sounds like Chernow does an excellent job uncovering Washington's life, and in a manner that is engaging and interesting to read.

I'm glad to have you as part of this tour - this book seems like the perfect fit for your blog.

trish said...

Brian, really fantastic review! If Chernow is half as riveting, it's no wonder that people don't mind reading 800+ pages!

Thanks for being on this tour!