Regarding Washington

Ron Chernow sets himself a task in a bit of prose that could be interepreted, in the wrong context, as hubris:

from Washington: A Life
Ron Chernow

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, instaed of having a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation of this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.

Chernow's approach to Washington is large, but incomparison to earlier works by Flexner (four volumes, which I have read) and Freeman (seven volumes, which I have not read), this is relatively svelte approach to one of the great and enigmatic characters in the American Pantheon.  When I was under the influence of Jefferson, I thought him, as Jefferson did, a rather dull-witted dolt of a man who chanced into a position of power despite vast and airy incompetence.  I have come to regard that view as folly, and now have to fight off my negative impression of all things Jeffersonian, remembering as I do, how wrong I was about Washington.

Joseph Ellis wrote a study of Thomas Jefferson called American Sphinx, but I rather think the epithet misplaced, because Washington is one of the most complex and most completely hidden and "opaque" of the founding fathers. Chernow comments on this:

source as above

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 the 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 though 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.

Insightful, sharp-eyed, and clearly written, Chernow's biography of Washington promises to be like his two other magnificent biographies of Hamilton and J. P. Morgan and family.  I have penetrated enough into it to say for certain, but the biography shows a lively pace and dispenses with the endless and tedious trial of every detail about Washington's childhood and upbringing--limning for the purposes of fuller understanding, those events, incidents, and influences that will better support the bulk of the book devoted to the founding of a career and a legend.


  1. Thanks for the excerpts and comments on this. I was planning on this being my next listen (since that is the only way I'll get through it the same year I started). Chernow's book on Hamilton was a delight and I was hoping this would be the same.

    I read Joseph Ellis' book on Washington about a year ago and while it was good I was hoping for something a little more substantial. Looks like I'll get my wish.


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