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Washington: A Life

America’s first president emerges from this marvelous biography an admirable, flawed, and very human figure.

By Erik Spanberg / November 3, 2010

Washington: A Life By Ron Chernow The Penguin Press 869 pp., $40


George Washington was stoic, dignified, heroic, and devoted to duty.

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He was also a slave owner, an unyielding taskmaster, vain, and a failure in business and finance.

Most important for any American filled with elementary school fables, our first president never chopped down a cherry tree and confessed his deforestation sins to his father. And his dentures were made of hippopotamus ivory and real teeth taken from others (a common if ghoulish practice of Washington’s time) rather than wood.

These are but a few of the basic observations readers will glean from Ron Chernow’s marvelous, mammoth biography Washington: A Life. The author, who won accolades for his earlier account of Washington’s indispensable Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, has transformed the most marbled – or wooden – of presidents into flesh and blood.

From Washington’s churning emotions beneath a cool exterior to his love of ladies and dance, the hero of the Revolutionary War and America’s first president emerges as an admirable, flawed, and human figure. His origins were hardly humble, as Washington’s father made strides in stature and affluence during George’s childhood.

At the same time, Washington’s greatness was anything but foreordained. Born and raised in the Tidewater section of Virginia, the future president was just 11 years old when his father died. He inherited the 260-acre Ferry Farm and 11 slaves, but only upon surrender of his domineering mother, Mary Ball Washington.

As Chernow points out, “George developed the deeply rooted toughness of children forced to function as adults at an early age.” He missed out on the classical education of his siblings, a deficiency that gnawed at Washington for the rest of his life.

Mary Ball Washington proved nettlesome to her most famous son all the way to the White House. Make that all the way to the presidency, as the White House had yet to be built when the first president took office. (The future “Federal City” named after Washington was approved during his presidency. While serving as president, Washington lived first in New York and then in the temporary capital city of Philadelphia.) Chernow, only half-joking, writes, “[O]ne is tempted to say that the first formidable general George Washington ever encountered was his own mother.”

Surveyor, general
Beyond cherry trees and wooden teeth, Chernow explodes plenty of myths and assumptions.

He does so with extensive, illuminating excerpts from Washington’s personal papers and letters. That said papers come from a widely expanded collection at the University of Virginia lends a bit of irony since the school was created by and remains inextricably linked to Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Founding Father with whom Washington had a painful falling-out near the end of his life.

Early and late flirtatious friendships with women such as Sally Fairfax and Elizabeth Powel brought out Washington’s oft-overlooked humanity. In 1798, Washington wrote to Fairfax, an aging widow whom he hadn’t seen in decades, and described their youthful days as “the happiest of my life,” quite a statement from a man credited as the father of his country. Washington was never father to any children of his own, though Chernow demonstrates that he provided generous support for stepchildren, nieces, nephews, and other extended family members throughout his life.