"The best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written." -Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books
Celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other onevolume life of George Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his adventurous early years, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Continental Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow shatters forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional figure and brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods.
In March 1793 Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express purpose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist. Though born in Rhode Island and reared in Newport, Stuart had escaped to the cosmopolitan charms of London during the war and spent eighteen years producing portraits of British and Irish grandees. Overly fond of liquor, prodigal in his spending habits, and with a giant brood of children to support, Stuart had landed in the Marshalsea Prison in Dublin, most likely for debt, just as Washington was being sworn in as first president of the United States in 1789.
For the impulsive, unreliable Stuart, who left a trail of incomplete paintings and irate clients in his wake, George Washington emerged as the savior who would rescue him from insistent creditors. "When I can net a sum sufficient to take me to America, I shall be off to my native soil," he confided eagerly to a friend. "There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits… and if I should be fortunate, I will repay my English and Irish creditors." In a self-portrait daubed years earlier, Stuart presented himself as a restless soul, with tousled reddish-brown hair, keen blue eyes, a strongly marked nose, and a pugnacious chin. This harried, disheveled man was scarcely the sort to appeal to the immaculately formal George Washington.
Once installed in New York, Stuart mapped out a path to Washington with the thoroughness of a military campaign. He stalked Washington's trusted friend Chief Justice John Jay and rendered a brilliant portrait of him, seated in the full majesty of his judicial robes. Shortly afterward Stuart had in hand the treasured letter of introduction from Jay to President Washington that would unlock the doors of the executive residence in Philadelphia, then the temporary capital.
As a portraitist, the garrulous Stuart had perfected a technique to penetrate his subjects' defenses. He would disarm them with a steady stream of personal anecdotes and irreverent wit, hoping that this glib patter would coax them into self-revelation. In the taciturn George Washington, a man of granite self-control and a stranger to spontaneity, Gilbert Stuart met his match. From boyhood, Washington had struggled to master and conceal his deep emotions. When the wife of the British ambassador later told him that his face showed pleasure at his forthcoming departure from the presidency, Washington grew indignant: "You are wrong. My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings!" He tried to govern his tongue as much as his face: "With me it has always been a maxim rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions."
When Washington swept into his first session with Stuart, the artist was awestruck by the tall, commanding president. Predictably, the more Stuart tried to pry open his secretive personality, the tighter the president clamped it shut. Stuart's opening gambit backfired. "Now, sir," Stuart instructed his sitter, "you must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart, the painter." To which Washington retorted drily that Mr. Stuart need not forget "who he is or who General Washington is."
A master at sizing people up, Washington must have cringed at Stuart's facile bonhomie, not to mention his drinking, snuff taking, and ceaseless chatter. With Washington, trust had to be earned slowly, and he balked at instant familiarity with people. Instead of opening up with Stuart, he retreated behind his stolid mask. The scourge of artists, Washington knew how to turn himself into an impenetrable monument long before an obelisk arose in his honor in the nation's capital.
As Washington sought to maintain his defenses, Stuart made the brilliant decision to capture the subtle interplay between his outward calm and his intense hidden emotions, a tension that defined the man. He spied the extraordinary force of personality lurking behind an extremely restrained facade. The mouth might be compressed, the parchment skin drawn tight over ungainly dentures, but Washington's eyes still blazed from his craggy face. In the enduring image that Stuart captured and that ended up on the one-dollar bill—a magnificent statement of Washington's moral stature and sublime, visionary nature—he also recorded something hard and suspicious in the wary eyes with their penetrating gaze and hooded lids.
With the swift insight of artistic genius, Stuart grew convinced that Washington was not the placid and composed figure he presented to the world. In the words of a mutual acquaintance, Stuart had insisted that "there are features in [Washington's] face totally different from what he ever observed in that of any other human being; the sockets of the eyes, for instance, are larger than he ever met with before, and the upper part of the nose broader. All his features, [Stuart] observed, were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forests, it was his opinion that [Washington] would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes." The acquaintance confirmed that Washington's intimates thought him "by nature a man of fierce and irritable disposition, but that, like Socrates, his judgment and great self-command have always made him appear a man of a different cast in the eyes of the world."
Although many contemporaries were fooled by Washington's aura of cool command, those who knew him best shared Stuart's view of a sensitive, complex figure, full of pent-up passion. "His temper was naturally high-toned [that is, high-strung], but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it," wrote Thomas Jefferson. "If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in wrath." John Adams concurred. "He had great self-command… but to preserve so much equanimity as he did required a great capacity. Whenever he lost his temper, as he did sometimes, either love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his weakness from the world." Gouverneur Morris agreed that Washington had "the tumultuous passions which accompany greatness and frequently tarnish its luster. With them was his first contest, and his first victory was over himself… Yet those who have seen him strongly moved will bear witness that his wrath was terrible. They have seen, boiling in his bosom, passion almost too mighty for man."
So adept was Washington at masking these turbulent emotions behind his fabled reserve that he ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved. He seems to lack the folksy appeal of an Abraham Lincoln, the robust vigor of a Teddy Roosevelt, or the charming finesse of a Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, George Washington has receded so much in our collective memory that he has become an impossibly stiff and inflexible figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human. How this seemingly dull, phlegmatic man, in a stupendous act of nation building, presided over the victorious Continental Army and forged the office of the presidency is a mystery to most Americans. Something essential about Washington has been lost to posterity, making him seem a worthy but plodding man who somehow stumbled into greatness.
From a laudable desire to venerate Washington, we have sanded down the rough edges of his personality and made him difficult to grasp. He joined in this conspiracy to make himself unknowable. Where other founders gloried in their displays of intellect, Washington's strategy was the opposite: the less people knew about him, the more he thought he could accomplish. Opacity was his means of enhancing his power and influencing events. Where Franklin, Hamilton, or Adams always sparkled in print or in person, the laconic Washington had no need to flaunt his virtues or fill conversational silences. Instead, he wanted the public to know him as a public man, concerned with the public weal and transcending egotistical needs.
Washington's lifelong struggle to control his emotions speaks to the issue of how he exercised leadership as a politician, a soldier, a planter, and even a slaveholder. People felt the inner force of his nature, even if they didn't exactly hear it or see it; they sensed his moods without being told. In studying his life, one is struck not only by his colossal temper but by his softer emotions: this man of deep feelings was sensitive to the delicate nuances of relationships and prone to tears as well as temper. He learned how to exploit his bottled-up emotions to exert his will and inspire and motivate people. If he aroused universal admiration, it was often accompanied by a touch of fear and anxiety. His contemporaries admired him not because he was a plaster saint or an empty uniform but because they sensed his unseen power. As the Washington scholar W. W. Abbot noted, "An important element in Washington's leadership both as a military commander and as President was his dignified, even forbidding, demeanor, his aloofness, the distance he consciously set and maintained between himself and nearly all the rest of the world."9
The goal of the present biography is to create a fresh portrait of Washington that will make him real, credible, and charismatic in the same way that he was perceived by his contemporaries. By gleaning anecdotes and quotes from myriad sources, especially from hundreds of eyewitness accounts, I have tried to make him vivid and immediate, rather than the lifeless waxwork he has become for many Americans, and thereby elucidate the secrets of his uncanny ability to lead a nation. His unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty, and civic-mindedness—these exemplary virtues were achieved only by his ability to subdue the underlying volatility of his nature and direct his entire psychological makeup to the single-minded achievement of a noble cause.
A man capable of constant self-improvement, Washington grew in stature throughout his life. This growth went on subtly, at times imperceptibly, beneath the surface, making Washington the most interior of the founders. His real passions and often fiery opinions were typically confined to private letters rather than public utterances. During the Revolution and his presidency, the public Washington needed to be upbeat and inspirational, whereas the private man was often gloomy, scathing, hot-blooded, and pessimistic.
For this reason, the new edition of the papers of George Washington, started in 1968 and one of the great ongoing scholarly labors of our time, has provided an extraordinary window into his mind. The indefatigable team of scholars at the University of Virginia has laid a banquet table for Washington biographers and made somewhat outmoded the monumental Washington biographies of the mid-twentieth century: the seven volumes published by Douglas Southall Freeman (1948 – 57) and the four volumes by James T. Flexner (1965 – 72). This book is based on a close reading of the sixty volumes of letters and diaries published so far in the new edition, supplemented by seventeen volumes from the older edition to cover the historical gaps. Never before have we had access to so much material about so many aspects of Washington's public and private lives.
In recent decades, many fine short biographies of Washington have appeared as well as perceptive studies of particular events, themes, or periods in his life. My intention is to produce a large-scale, one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative that will be both dramatic and authoritative, encompassing the explosion of research in recent decades that has enriched our understanding of Washington as never before. The upshot, I hope, will be that readers, instead of having a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation of this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.
PRELUDE: The Portrait
PART ONE: The Frontiersman
PART TWO: The Planter
PARTH THREE: The General
PART FOUR: The Statesman
PART FIVE: The President
PART SIX: The Legend
“Truly magnificent… [a] well-researched, well-written and absolutely definitive biography” –Andrew Roberts, The Wall Street Journal
“Superb… the best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written. [Chernow’s] understanding of human nature is extraordinary and that is what makes his biography so powerful.” –Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books
“Chernow displays a breadth of knowledge about Washington that is nothing short of phenomenal… never before has Washington been rendered so tangibly in such a smart, tenaciously researched volume as Chernow's opus… a riveting read...” –Douglas Brinkley, The Los Angeles Times
“Until recently, I’d never believed that there could be such a thing as a truly gripping biography of George Washington…Well, I was wrong. Ron Chernow’s huge (900 pages) Washington: A Life, which I’ve just finished, does all that and more. I can’t recommend it highly enough—as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment. It’s as luxuriantly pleasurable as one of those great big sprawling, sweeping Victorian novels.” –Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker
“[Ron Chernow] has done justice to the solid flesh, the human frailty and the dental miseries of his subject—and also to his immense historical importance… This is a magnificently fair, full-scale biography.” –The Economist
Surprising Facts About George Washington
Washington marks a departure for you. J.P. Morgan and family, the Warburgs, John D. Rockefeller, Alexander Hamilton: Your previous subjects have all had a financial or business connection.
I thought that if I went on doing only business subjects I would go stale as a writer. I was also a bit concerned at the way that people began to stereotype me. At the end of lectures, people would start yelling, "Do Carnegie next! Do Vanderbilt" next, as if I would spend the rest of my life portraying one tycoon after another. I like to think that I'm more than a one-trick pony. People sometimes overstate the financial dimensions of my books, which are rich in political and social history with complex psychological portraits at their core.
Tell us about your decision to write a presidential biography and tackle such a well-known figure.
When I was researching my Hamilton biography, I came upon some letters that Hamilton wrote about Washington during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton was serving as his aide-de-camp when the two men had a quarrel, leading to Hamilton's departure from his staff. In subsequent letters, Hamilton described Washington as a moody, irritable, and temperamental boss, even something of a powder keg. I had never seen Washington described that way and I began to wonder whether significant dimensions of his personality had escaped previous biographers. That started me down a long and complex road as I sought to capture Washington's true personality.
How is George Washington different in your biography from the one depicted in previous biographies or school history lessons.
Well, in our laudable desire to honor and revere Washington, we have sanded down the rough edges of his personality and made him an impossibly stiff and wooden figure. Beneath his famously stoic reserve there lurked a powerfully emotional man of many moods and fiery opinions. He was a real force of nature, not at all the bland figure we carry about in our heads. When I began to see him in this light, his extraordinary accomplishments became far more comprehensible to me. The furnace of his ambition was always boiling.
Your Washington is enriched by access to the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. As a result, you are able to paint a portrait of Washington never seen before. Tell us about this and your research.
Starting in the late 1960s, the University of Virginia began to publish a new edition of Washington's papers, based on 135,000 documents gathered from archives around the world. These volume appear at the rate of one or two per year and now total more than sixty of a projected ninety volumes. This new edition is a veritable feast of scholarship, printing all letters to and from Washington as well as extracts from contemporary letters, diaries, and newspapers. At times, you feel you can trail Washington about on an almost hourly basis. The result, I hope, is a far more vivid and immediate portrait of the man than has ever been possible before.
Every schoolchild hears about Washington's wooden teeth but you point out that this is just one of many myths about Washington that persists.
The cherry tree story was invented after Washington's death by Parson Mason Locke Weems, an itinerant preacher and book peddler. This story, which has tormented generations of schoolchildren, has no known basis in fact. Another common myth is that Washington had wooden teeth. While it's true that he wore dentures, they were carved from walrus or elephant ivory; as the ivory aged and got stained, it developed a grainy look that resembled wood. Hence the historic misunderstanding. Yet another common myth is that Washington wore a wig; in fact, he got that characteristic look by pulling his hair straight back, fluffing out the sides, then powdering his hair. To modern eyes, it looks like a wig.
You reveal surprising details about Washington's mother. Tell us about their relationship and how it shaped him.
When Washington was eleven, his father died and his mother thought that he should devote his life to taking care of her. Mary Washington was a crusty, prickly, and self-centered woman. We have no evidence that she attended George and Martha's wedding or ever visited them at Mount Vernon. Starting with the French and Indian War and running through Washington's tenure as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, she complained that he neglected her. Late in the Revolutionary War, she even filed a petition for relief with the Virginia legislature, pleading poverty and insinuating that she had been abandoned by her son. This was immensely painful and embarrassing to Washington, who had been a dutiful son, if not always a particularly affectionate one.
Washington reveals more about Washington as a slave holder than any book before. Why? What did you discover that surprised you?
Well, I assumed that when a man owns 300 human beings, it formed no small or trivial part of his life. I present a very detailed but very mixed picture of Washington as a slave holder. On the one hand, I discovered that he was a relatively benign master who recognized slave marriages and refused to break up families. On the other hand, he was so intent on extracting profit from his slaves that even on the coldest winter days, he had them out digging up tree stumps, draining swamps, and performing other heavy manual labor. Washington was always bothered by being a slave owner and in his will he became the only Founding Father who had the decency to free his slaves.
Though people often think of the founding era as an age of civil discourse and genteel politics, it was quite the contrary. Politics in the early republic could be brutal and rife with discord.
We like to idealize the founding era as a genteel era of philosopher kings, but it was a period of partisan attacks and blistering polemics as nasty as anything seen today. Like President Obama, Washington became president hoping to transcend partisanship and conduct a reasonable political discourse. Instead he ended up as the target of vicious attacks from the opposition press, which accused him of adopting regal ways. After two terms, he left office a bruised and somewhat bitter man.
One of Washington's gifts was his ability to inspire and bring people together. Would you discuss this and other attributes that made Washington a great leader?
Washington had a keen sense of human psychology. During the Revolutionary War, he knew how to motivate his men by portraying them as actors in a grand historical pageant, a glorious fight for freedom. He made people feel that their sacrifice mattered. At the same time, he never assumed that people were saints. Before battles, he warned that deserters were cowards who would be shot on the spot. He always demanded the best from his people.
You paint a lavishly detailed portrait of Washington's marriage to Martha, yet we know that he was smitten with his best friend's wife, Sally Fairfax. Washington wrote that his life's happiest moments had been passed with Sally, not Martha. Nonetheless, you say that George Washington was happily married.
On the eve of his marriage to Martha, Washington was still infatuated with Sally Fairfax but it was an impossible dream: her husband, George William Fairfax, was a close friend and wealthy man and the all-powerful Fairfax clan had been Washington's chief sponsors in Virginia society and politics. Washington may well have felt more romantic toward Sally Fairfax than Martha, but Martha gave him everything he needed for a happy life: enormous wealth, emotional support, fine social skills, excellent judgment, and steady integrity. Washington's marriage probably mellowed into a deeply rewarding friendship as the years went by.
How would you rank Washington as a general? You point out that he probably lost more battles than he won during the Revolutionary War.
By conventional standards, Washington doesn't rank as a major military leader. He bungled several major battles—Brooklyn, Brandywine Creek, Germantown—through faulty strategy or insufficient intelligence. But he can't be judged by the usual scorecard of battles lost or won. His position as commander-in-chief was as much a political as military one and by keeping the Continental Army intact, he kept alive the flame of rebellion for more than eight years, overcoming constant shortages of money, manpower, clothing, blankets, and gunpowder. This supreme feat dwarfs anything he did on the battlefield. Washington came to personify the new country in a way that nobody else could have duplicated.
You point out that as president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington didn't participate in the debates. How important was his presence there?
His presence in Philadelphia was vital because the convention delegates, who debated behind closed doors for four months, were sworn to secrecy. Washington's leadership reassured a skittish public that a sinister conspiracy wasn't being hatched in Philadelphia. Also, the delegates felt comfortable in creating a powerful office of the presidency in the Constitution because they assumed that the trustworthy Washington would be its first occupant.
America is endlessly fascinated with the Founding Fathers, especially of late. Why do you think that is?
I would have to suspect that the current fascination with the founders stems from disenchantment with our current crop of politicians. People are disturbed by a sense that the country is adrift, so naturally they turn back to a time of unusual creativity in government when the leading figures were brilliant, fearless, and heroic. We are also divided by fundamental splits in our society that drive us back, again and again, to the crafting of the Constitution and the basic principles of the country's founding.
How is Washington and the turbulent time of America's founding relevant today?
As a politician, Washington had several outstanding qualities that seem in short supply today. Whatever hardships he faced, he always retained a clarity of vision and constancy of purpose that were quite extraordinary. Whether as general or president, he never let petty disputes or personal ambitions sidetrack him from the lofty goals of winning American independence and forming a strong, free, and prosperous country. In pursuing these objectives, he never cut ethical corners or pandered to the public for the sake of short-term success. He never confused leadership with a popularity contest. Instead he made people strive to match his own high moral standards. Would that we had more people like Washington in public life today.
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