George Washington was stoic, dignified, heroic, and devoted to duty.
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.”
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.
With so many learned men among the Founding Fathers, it may surprise some to learn that not only did Washington lack a college education, but he also knew nothing of French, Greek, or Latin.
John Adams, who had the miserable fate of succeeding Washington as president, once sneered that his heroic predecessor was “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation.” On that point, of course, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Elsewhere, the author offers nifty nuggets such as the origins of the name of Washington’s beloved plantation, Mount Vernon. It was named for British Admiral Edward Vernon, under whom George’s half brother served. Chernow chortles over the irony – the home of the leader of the American rebellion against the British took its name from an English military man.
Washington began his own military career in his early 20s. His mother, as always, opposed her son’s ambition, preferring that George focus on supporting her rather than himself.
During the Revolutionary War and even after America won its independence, Washington’s skills as a military leader were questioned by many. His reputation took its first hit many years earlier during the French and Indian War. In 1754, Washington’s impatience and poorly planned campaign led to an ignoble surrender to the French at Fort Necessity in present-day Pennsylvania.
His courage and dignity surfaced soon enough, however, elevating Washington even as he failed to land a commissioned role in the British Army. Several lifelong themes emerged during his earliest service: Washington, whether in military, civic or political roles, almost never accepted compensation, an effective method of staying above the fray.
He maintained contradictory stances that included a love of British fashion and goods even as he came to resent the English monarchy and its grip on life in the Colonies. Washington was almost always in debt because of his constant aspirational shopping (furniture, finery and clothes were the chief culprits). And, whether at war or in the presidency, he fretted on a nonstop basis over the fate and day-to-day operations of his Virginia plantation.
Slaves, of course, provided the bedrock of Washington’s – and the South’s – faltering economy. Washington proved more humane as a slave owner than many other Founding Fathers and others, but Chernow makes frequent and appropriate note of how horrific and counterintuitive it was. Even as president, Washington recoiled at the institution of slavery while quietly scrambling to make sure runaways were reclaimed and sent back to Mount Vernon.
Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others demanded life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for themselves, of course, but not for the men, women, and children who grew tobacco and other crops on their plantations. When he was selected as commander of the Continental Army, Washington owned 135 slaves.
Forty-three years old at the time of the Revolutionary War, Washington distinguished himself not for battle tactics, but for his remarkable leadership.
Self-deprecating, regal in bearing, and fearless in battle, the future president gained renown and undying respect from his men for riding his horse amid whizzing bullets without suffering injury on numerous occasions.
Improvisation and battle strategy could often be found lacking, but Washington was well ahead of his time in other areas. He developed an effective military intelligence and spy system during the war and took precautions to immunize his men against disease, limiting the potentially devastating impact of epidemic illness within the Army camps.
Despite constant desertion, relentless shortages of food, clothes, and weaponry, Washington cobbled an army together and, over eight grueling years, outlasted the world’s most powerful military and won independence. Remember that the crossing of the frozen Delaware River occurred seven years before the war ended.
The infamous, miserable winter at Valley Forge becomes vivid in its gruesome reality as Chernow fills in the details. Two thousand men died there that winter, mired in crude log cabins and frozen conditions with almost nothing to eat. Vomit, bloody feet, and soup made of burned leaves and dirt were among the foremost impressions of one doctor who visited the Army at Valley Forge. Staving off mutiny in those conditions ranks among Washington’s greatest achievements in leading the Continental Army.
In battle and in office, Washington was a deliberate thinker. His voice and delivery made for less than thrilling oratory, exacerbated by constant dental problems and agonizing false teeth that made speeches and sibilant sounds problematic.
Chernow does a marvelous job of getting the little details right, including Washington’s endless dental horrors. Throughout his life, Washington was secretive in his dealings with dentists, embarrassed over what the public would make of his constant ailments and lost teeth. By the time he became president, Washington had just one of his original teeth left.
By unanimous electoral votes, Washington served two terms as president of the fledgling United States. These were hardly the placid years.
Failure was very much an option – and the young America seemed to be teetering on collapse all too often. Internecine warfare within Washington’s camp ran rampant. Jefferson, the secretary of State, and Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury, manipulated public opinion and hurled accusations at each other constantly.
As a Virginia planter, Washington would seem to have been a natural ally of Jefferson, James Madison, and other Southerners pushing for an agrarian economy backed by low taxes and strong states’ rights. Instead, he gravitated toward Hamilton’s national – or Federalist – stance, leading to a strong national government, the establishment of more complex financial systems, and an abhorrence of the bloody French Revolution that Jefferson cheered.
By the time he died in 1799, Washington had already been transformed into an almost mythic hero. Along the way, he established presidential precedents ranging from serving no more than two terms (broken only by FDR and later made into law) to creating and expanding a national defense, avoiding deep foreign conflict, and establishing national credit and taxation.
Though his marriage to the widowed Martha Custis was more pragmatic than romantic, there is little evidence Washington betrayed her beyond the occasional flirtations with Sally Fairfax and Elizabeth Powel. Martha Washington endured endless military camps, political receptions, and dinners while bolstering her husband’s fatigued, frayed nerves, longing only to return home to Mount Vernon. The couple lacked romantic passion, but their mutual friendship, respect, and emotional support remain admirable.
In his final months, Washington provided a fitting capstone to his lengthy military and political career. The most vexing and damning circumstance of his life was slavery. In his will, under messy terms that left Martha grappling with unforeseen difficulties, Washington freed his slaves and “brought his own behavior in line with his own troubled conscience,” Chernow writes.
As he lay dying months later, Washington maintained his dignity and selflessness. He told doctors and family members to leave him be, offered no hysterical cries, and went calmly to his grave.
With that, Washington moved on to immortality. Now, in Chernow’s capable hands, he regains his humanity as well.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.